Sisyphus Pushing a Beach Ball: Vacations

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By Skip Eisiminger

Are we there, yet?

Are we there, yet?

“I don’t believe it ever occurred to my maternal grandparents to take a vacation, and the paternal set never took a holiday until their five children were grown. The latter (born like the former in about 1900) took ‘trips.’ Before they died, they boasted they had driven through all 50 state capitals but, often, they didn’t even stop.” Skip Eisiminger

“People, like water, are purged by motion—/wind, waves, and tides sweeten the ocean.”—The Wordspinner

“People, like arches, are strengthened by weight,/and toppled by wind unless there’s some freight.”—The Wordspinner

Sterling (Skip) EisimingerCLEMSON South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—9/23/2013—On my first day at the beach, I’m intoxicated by the salt air but, by the third day, I’m hung over. On the first night, I think I could live on crab cakes and boiled shrimp; by the third night, I have my annual “beach cold.” On the second day, I’m tempted to buy a time share; by the third day, I realize I left The Shorter OED at home.

As you can see, I am a man conflicted by the prospect of a vacation. I do love the Côte d’Carolina, but most of my time in Cherry Grove, the northernmost beach in South Carolina, is spent reading and writing, which is what I do at home and what I used to do at the office. It’s my own version of a busman’s holiday: a bus ride to the beach taken by a career bus driver. You have to realize that Sisyphus came to love his rock.

What the Italians call bel far niente, roughly translated “nothing to do and all day to do it,” has made retirement something less than an extended vacation. On the other hand, I like few things more than rising early on a weekday, taking a bike ride, and coming home to read the papers. I read three of them with pen and scissors nearby in case I find something to clip or to show my wife when she rises.

When it comes to holidays, contemporary cartoonists are as conflicted as I am, though kids in the comic universe still rejoice the day school lets out and grieve when it resumes. In one of Bil Keane’s Family Circus strips, Billy, age ten, tells his mother as he walks out the door with a baseball in one hand and a glove in the other, “I don’t have time for breakfast. I’ve gotta get started on vacation.” Yet as soon Dagwood and Dilbert mature, the jingle changes. David Sipress draws a wife with a travel brochure in hand asking her husband, “Where do you want to worry that we’re spending too much money this summer?” Michael Maslin imagines a husband asking his wife, who’s reading a map, “How many miles before our next fight?” And Michael Crawford pictures a husband caught in a snarl of Long Island traffic asking his wife, “Do you remember, Peg—are we on our way out, or on our way back?”

A subset of “I hate vacations” is, “I wonder what’s going on at the office without me?” I have three cartoons by different artists in my files in which a vacationing male looks at some waves, some meandering footprints in the sand, or a line of mountains, and then fantasizes that he’s viewing a line graph of the stock market’s performance. As for their love-starved wives, they’re too engrossed in books about women wearing bodices and the shirtless men who rip instead of unlacing to worry about the market or their husbands.

If vacations are as atypical of our species as cartoonists suggest, how did modern Germans end up with six weeks of paid time off enforced by law? The Romans thought of a vacatio not as an occasion to hike the Apennines, but an “empty time” when they were exempt from military duty. The concept was so foreign to our medieval kin that “vacation” didn’t exist in English until about 1350. Later, the word referred to any day which was not a church-designated holy day; it was just a vacant time without any obligations to attend mass. While the average was about a hundred, at least one medieval parish had 222 annual holidays. The worldly-success-is-a-sign-of-salvation Puritans were naturally suspicious of all this hooky-playing and, by the e18th century with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, “vacation” stopped referring to the days one worked and was transferred to those now rare days that one didn’t have to punch a time clock. In 1779, when Captain Cook’s men first spied Polynesians surfing, they were mystified. “How can one fish from a surf board?” one wondered. For the lower and middle classes, recreation was a foreign concept.

Other language historians, however, contend that the modern sense of “vacation” doesn’t appear in print until 1878, just one year before “weekend” was coined and 31 years after “sightseeing.” Indeed, the American family vacation wasn’t commonplace until after World War II.

Further evidence that vacations are a relatively recent development is found in the dictionary. “Unbuttoned ease,” “decompression time,” “a breathing spell,” “downtime,” and the military’s “R and R” are all 20th-century additions to the lexicon. Related verb phrases including “mellow out,” “kick back,” “take five,” “take an ad hoc day,” “take a duvet day,” “to spaniel,” and “to spud out (with chips and beer on the couch)” are all late 20th– and early 21st– century additions.


I don’t believe it ever occurred to my maternal grandparents to take a vacation, and the paternal set never took a holiday until their five children were grown.The latter (born like the former in about 1900) took “trips.” Before they died, they boasted they had driven through all 50 state capitals but, often, they didn’t even stop.

A former dean of mine once told his faculty that as soon as he “got this vacation thing behind him” he’d get down to some important college issues. I don’t recall saying anything quite that telling but, in my 40s, I resembled Richard Nixon on the beach at San Clemente in a three-piece suit and wingtips. I thought of traveling with the family not as “getting away from it all,” but as “taking it all with us.” Try to imagine four people cramming all they might need for a week at the beach into a VW sedan. Now imagine that car without air conditioning and with rear windows that did not open. If you’ve seen dogs hanging out a window in August, you have the picture.

As best I can recall, my bias against third-class travel accompanied by children originated when I was sharing the back seat with my two sisters on a 1,600-mile outing to see our grandparents in the early 1950s. Somewhere about the thousandth mile along the old two-lane US 1, I whined once too often about the cramped conditions in our Plymouth station wagon. Before I realized I’d crossed some invisible, unspoken line, the back of my father’s open right hand came over the front seat and caught me square on the cheek. I’m amazed he didn’t throw his shoulder out or wreck the car, but the conviction of that gesture taught me a lesson: no one needs some work to do or school to return to like someone who’s survived a vacation.

Note: The image of the overloaded wagon hails from, and does not depict the Eisimingers, needless to say.

About Sterling Eisiminger

Dr. Sterling (“Skip”) Eisiminger was born in Washington DC in 1941. The son of an Army officer, he traveled widely but often reluctantly with his family in the United States and Europe. After finishing a master’s degree at Auburn and taking a job at Clemson University in 1968, he promised himself that he would put down some deep roots. These roots now reach back through fifty years of Carolina clay. In 1974, Eisiminger received a Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina, where poet James Dickey “guided” his creative dissertation. His publications include Non-Prescription Medicine (poems), The Pleasures of Language: From Acropox to Word Clay (essays), Omi and the Christmas Candles (a children’s book), and Wordspinner (word games). He is married to the former Ingrid (“Omi”) Barmwater, a native of Germany, and is the proud father of a son, Shane, a daughter, Anja, and grandfather to four grandchildren, Edgar, Sterling, Spencer, and Lena.
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2 Responses to Sisyphus Pushing a Beach Ball: Vacations

  1. Will Balk, Jr says:

    I’m inevitably stifling giggles by the second paragraph in everything Sterling writes here…god! I hope that’s what he intended!

  2. Skip says:

    Will, A lot of my humor goes right by me. If it were not for clever readers like you, I’d be out of the loupe.

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