Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Sun king

The sun and I don't get along very well. (I was trying to work in some sort of "flaming ball of gas" joke in here, but I'll leave it to you. Have at it.) Thanks to all my pale and wan ancestors, I can get a sunburn if I stand in the light of the open refrigerator too long. So naturally, the southwestern desert was a perfect place to grow up. Indoors.

I think my first encounter with the true strength of the desert sun was when we were first living in Arizona, swimming down at the local pool (where I was a proud member of the Oracle Heights Otters swim team.) I would have been about seven or eight; my mother had some sort of coconut oil that she slathered on us before we spent the day splashing around with the other neighborhood kids. By the end of the day - due to either the sun or maybe something strange in the oil - I had a giant raised blister on top of each shoulder the size of a silver dollar. Ouch.

My mother is Irish, but she, like a few of her many brothers and sisters, has the "black Irish" coloring. "Black Irish" generally just means Irish with dark hair and eyes, although they are sometimes supposed to be descended from survivors of the Spanish Armada. She tans with no trouble at all. My brother and sister and I got more of our father's German coloring: red hair, pale, some freckles. Did I mention pale?

When I would stay with my grandparents, one of my uncles would be out in the backyard tanning to a deep, dark crisp (this was the 70s, so tan was in, and we hadn't yet chewed a hole in the ozone layer.) I wanted so badly to be tan. I also wanted my hair to feather, but that was another impossible dream. If I worked slowly, I could gradually get tan over a whole summer, to the point where I had an actual tan line, but it was a challenge.

There was Coppertone, and there was baby oil. They didn't have SPFs; I don't know what was actually in all that Coppertone lotion I was using. I always refused to put zinc oxide on my nose, so my nose was generally peeling all summer. When they finally did invent sunblock with SPF, 15 was as high as you could go. I was still on a quest for a tan - by this time it was the early 80s and I was in high school. I would climb up on the roof of my father's house and lay out for as long as I could stand it. I would have put lotion on evenly, everywhere except my back. Not being able to reach, I would haphazardly squirt the lotion down my back, resulting in some Pollock-like patterns of burned and not-burned skin. I probably had Sun-In in my hair, too. The 80s. Yeah.

So on I went, every summer trying to get a little bit of a tan, but mostly giving up and staying indoors. When I inevitably did get a sunburn, it always looked far worse than it felt; my skin became lobster red very easily. I finally resigned myself to wearing long sleeves in summer, swimming with a t-shirt on, and generally glowing pink from April to September.

In the early 90s I was working in Montana for the summer, and decided to lay out with my shirt off in the sun during lunch one day. No sunblock, no towel over me, no nothing. I fell asleep. Sound asleep.

An hour later, I woke up with the worst sunburn I have ever had. It was beyond lobster red; it was beyond brick red. It was the sort of red that caused people to go "Jesus Christ!" when they saw my back. It was very, very, red. Jesus Christ Red.

My girlfriend that summer (this was my last gasp on the other side; a confusing time) did her best to help, rubbing aloe on and keeping me sprayed down with Lanacane. After the first day, it didn't hurt so much. Perhaps I had burned off my nerve endings, I don't know. It hurt, but it was bearable ... for about two days.

Then came the itch.

I woke up one day in my bunk with an itching feeling all over my back. Unbearable itching. I couldn't scratch my back - it hurt too much. But the feeling was overwhelming - itching, itching, itching. I could barely talk. I was whimpering. I didn't know what to do. I thought I might actually lose my mind.

I stumbled to the cinderblock shower room and stood under a cold spray. It was the only thing that stopped the torture (while the rest of my body froze.) Every time I stopped the water, within thirty seconds the itching started again. I almost cried. The feeling was only getting stronger.

Then, back under the shower, I tried to relax, breathing deeply, concentrating on the sensation. I told my mind to reinterpret the itching as pain instead - pretend it was a pain like pins jabbing me instead of an itching feeling. Pain I could handle. Itching, I couldn't.

It worked. When it only hurt instead of itched, it was bearable. I wore loose shirts and kept my back covered in aloe (thanks Lisa, wherever you are.) After another day, the itching/pain subsided. Thank god.

You would think I had learned my lesson, and I mostly had. Except... not. Flash forward a few years, when my good friend Julie had moved to New York. She and I and another friend took a quick weekend trip to Atlantic City during the summer. Atlantic City, if you've never been there, is fun in its own way, but is generally like Las Vegas' sad chain-smoking cousin. It's a cigarette butt in the sandbox. It's Grandma's half-empty can of stale Pabst. Of course, I love it.

We traipsed in and out of casinos, and finally went and sat on the beach. My inner warning system shouted out Get a hat! Use some sunblock! But the lazy part of me thought, ahhhh, we won't be out here that long. How bad could it be?

The next day, I woke up as the supervillain Tomato Face.

This would have been fine - I could have dealt with people going "Ow! Got some sun, huh?" "Bet that hurts!" and again "Got some sun, huh?" (I always want to say I was just watching the microwave too closely.) But this was a few days before I was supposed to work at a festival assisting a friend of mine who was giving a keynote speech and facilitating a "town meeting" event. I was going to be very visible. And I knew what happened after a burn like this: peeeeeeeeeeeling. So, I thought, once I start to peel, I'll just help it along with some gentle exfoliation.

Here's a tip I have for you. If you start to peel, do not help it along with some gentle exfoliation.

Now my face was partly burned and partly peeled, covered with small cuts and scabs where the skin broke after my adventures with apricot scrub. And I was going out in public, meeting various Mr. and Ms. Big Pantses of my field.

And every time I met someone, I saw that "Jesus Christ!" reflex pass over their face. It wasn't until I ran into an old friend that I heard the truth.

"Jesus Christ! Did you get dragged over a gravel driveway?"

In a way, yes. Yes, I did.

Given what we know now about skin cancer and premature aging and all that, I'm thankful now that I was forced to stay inside out of the sun during all my years in Arizona - where you can bleach your sheets just by hanging them outside. My father, fond of gardening shirtless outside, discovered skin cancer on his back. Countless women in Arizona who tanned their way through the 70s later found themselves with decolletage resembling cracked Naugahyde (I've noticed that these are the women who keep the turquoise jewelry industry booming.) I have (hopefully) been spared all that. I'd probably look weird with a tan, anyway (although seeing all those spray tans that they dish out on Queer Eye has made me think...)

So, if our paths ever cross in the summertime, you'll see that I dress appropriately and safely for the sun. And forgive me if I don't notice you right away. It's hard to see out of this beekeeper's helmet.


Blogger David said...

Once I dyed my hair black and got a sunburn. This was in the 1980s. I looked like a Native American in a 1980s shirt.

9:43 AM  
Blogger Broadsheet said...

With every post, I am more and more convinced that we are related in some fashion. I spent 6 summers lifeguarding in Wisconsin, Upstate NY (at an honest to goodness "Dirty Dancing" resort - complete with staff shows), and Western Pennsyltucky. Our lotion of choice was a can of Crisco at each lifeguard stand. Sometimes laced with a little iodine. It was considered acceptable to guys and girls alike, and more importantly - cheap. I have had one spot removed already and religiously undergo an exam once a year. One of the worst burns I ever got was a result of sitting at a cold, but very sunny beachside cafe in May, on the Friesan island of Vlieland in the Netherlands. Seemed too cold to burn (we all had jackets, scarves and jeans on) - but, ummm, at that latitude, NO. I was a mess for weeks.

1:33 PM  
Anonymous Julie said...

Ah the trip to Atlantic City...I remember that burn well. I'm grateful for my job in the theatre which keeps me working in a cave during the sunlight hours. During my last show the costumer asked if I could use bronzer on my face as apparently the lights made me glow to a spectacular shade of pale. I didn't work...still a spectacular shade of pale.

4:22 AM  
Anonymous kyle said...

I'm sitting in my computer chair right now twitching from the unbearable itching you mentioned. I have went through this several times before and it never gets any easier to tolerate. I was doing some yard work at my girlfriend's house and she told me that I should take off my shirt to get some sun. I haven't had any sun on anything but the expose portions of my arms and legs in shorts and short sleeves in years, so I was pastie white. I planned on putting my shirt back on after I started to feel the heat, but being a breezy and cool day, I just never felt my skin get hot.

Anyways, I can deal w/ the pain of the first day or two but it always seems like on day two or three I get hit with the demon from hell itch. It's like being tortured. I've been running around my room for the past hour just saying, "Make it stop!" I don't know if the source of the problem is more mental or physical, but I seriously considered jumping out the window because of the severity of the sensation. I was able to drape a shirt over my back and just gently wave it back and forth to get the feeling down to a more tolerable level, but the second I stopped, the tingling and itching started again, only intensified because of the scratching.

After ranting like a lunatic to my girlfriend on the phone, she finally got me to calm down enough to stop aggrevating the skin. If someone knows a cure for the itch, I'd love to hear it. It seems like only a few people experience the itching this severely during a sunburn. Most people recommend lotions that seem to trigger the itch for me.

5:29 PM  

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