Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Browner Shade of Pale

The other day I was rereading John Updike’s memoir Self-Consciousness (Fawcett, 1990) and browsed his essay about lying in the sun to get relief for his psoriasis. Then I happened to reread the essay by Roy Blout, Jr., "Tan," in one of my favorite anthologies, Summer (ed. by Alice Gordon and Vincent Virga; Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1990). Then, this past Sunday, I read Sloan Crosley‘s NYT op-ed essay about the current heat wave (and people’s efforts at achieving comfort), called “Eight Million Bodies in the Naked City.” ( All these pieces conspired to remind me of one of my most hopeless pursuits: getting tan.

These are memories of adolescence. I suppose I turned somewhat brown as a little kid who played regularly in the yard and the park and went to the community swimming pool. I can't remember. But being tan as an intentional goal was a teenage issue.

I don’t know the average age when puberty begins, but I seemed to hit it sooner than other boys, based on my terrible skin and the ribbing I received from clear-skinned bullies. I was 13 when I first shaved, and I remember the date, November 29, 1970, because my great-uncle Charlie Crawford died that day in my hometown. Up until then I was very peach-fuzzy and pimply, and since we had to drive to the airport to pick up one of Charlie‘s daughters, I finally tired of looking so bizarre and asked Dad to help me use a safety razor. I also remember being ashamed of my oily, broken-out skin when another relative passed away the following spring. Based on these memories, my 13th, 14th, and 15th years must’ve been the worst for acne.

A dermatologist advised me to get a lot of sun, because the UV rays helped acne. I dearly wanted a good tan anyway, so that sounded great. He even put me in a kind of tanning bed at his office, as a zits treatment. Obviously the advice is outdated today, with concerns for skin cancer and skin damage caused by excessive sun exposure. But at the time, looking brown signaled “coolness” and health.

The sun did clear my unruly skin, but I’m too fair to tan easily. I inherited Dad’s complexion; during a beach vacation he got second-degree sunburns on his legs. Only through many tries did I obtain tan lines around my wrist watch. My legs and feet were hopeless; my legs burned, peeled, and remained as white as ever; my feet got a pink patch on the insteps and nothing more. My best hope was to achieve a browner shade of pale, to paraphrase that old Procol Harum song.

Some summer days, I lay on a towel in the backyard for half-hour increments. It was so boring when I lay on my back! Even listening to my little AM radio didn’t help, and I felt too uncomfortable to nap. Lying on my stomach, at least I could read a book. Just as certain Beatles' songs (especially "Paperback Writer") remind me of kidhood swimming trips, later styles of music remind me of sunlight and beach towels spread upon backyard grass: early 70s Motown, for instance (The Temptations, the O’Jays, and others), and Olivia Newton-John, whose first (and for a while only) hit, the Dylan song “If Not For You,” was sweet and pretty.

I went swimming, more often at the Vandalia Lake than the pool, and I rode my bike in the sun. I didn’t play sports, so baseball and tennis weren’t options. I got a couple summer jobs “bucking bales,” and above the waist I only wore a tee shirt that I easily remove so my chest and back could get sun. My dad recommended a long sleeved shirt for outdoor work because one’s sweat was cooling. But getting a lot of sun on my arms was the purpose of the hot, difficult job, maybe more so than the $2 an hour we got paid.

Genealogy was my high school hobby. I found a perfect opportunity to work on my tan when I decided to copy the inscriptions in our small family cemetery (about 250 stones in all). The cemetery is down a country road in a wooded clearing. Fortified with Coppertone-brand lotion, and dressed in just summer shorts, or shorts and a tank-top, I strolled around the tombstones with my clipboard, recording names, dates, and epitaphs.

A few summers I looked pretty decent. I was thrilled when someone commented that I looked like I'd been outdoors a lot--and this was while I was standing next to my girlfriend who was quite brown. Of course, kids who tanned easily (like said girlfriend) could say things like “Oh, I’m totally pale!” without irony. Arms were compared, and I marveled at friends' shame at being medium-bronze instead of dark-bronze.

After my acne subsided, my interest in being tan diminished. It was just too much time investment for such minor results, and I slowly began to accept and like myself as I am. Thus, as I said before, getting tan is a set of teenage memories. Years passed after high school, and the only other time I “laid out” was with divinity school buddies on the beach of Long Island Sound at New Haven--and that was more to hang out with friends than to get brown. I’ve visited other beaches, and I often work outdoors in summertime, but always buttered with 100,000 SPF sunscreen.

But, oh mercy, I hate the smell of tanning lotion and sunscreen! Even the most pleasant-smelling varieties make me want to shower quickly to get rid of that aroma. Olfactory memories are very powerful, and although my mental images of summer days are nostalgic and cheerful, that scent tempers my nostalgia considerably!

1 comment:

  1. In the words of my 14 year old niece, "I feel ya." There may be hope, though. On a recent trip home, I noticed that my Dad (age 76) has beautiful brown legs from working in the yard and on his hobby farm all day. Dad *never* had a tan before. So maybe there's hope for me (and you) yet. :-)