Oh, Sunburn (in other words, ow)

Sunburns are a rarity in my life. Perhaps that is because my day job keeps me inside for most daylight hours. Maybe as a writer, I'm driven to work where there is a wi-fi connection: coffee shops, libraries, fast food joints. Beaches are not known for offering internet access, and let's be honest, I'm not the kind of guy who is going to bring his laptop to the beach for a three-hour writing session.

Looking back on the thirty-some-odd years I have been alive, I wasn't the kind to frequently burn - even when outdoors more frequently. Those occasions I did turn a little red, the strawberry tint would quickly fade into an enviable tan.

Until this weekend. I took the kids swimming on Saturday and we spent a few hours at a Spokane Valley public pools. Everyone had fun and afterwards, I felt like a normal human being. I changed back into street clothes, and headed to Art on the Green with my daughter. Zu and I ate some fair food. We wandered through the vendors and crafters. Zu tried samples at every booth that offered them. Even then, I still didn't notice any ill effects of prolonged sunlight exposure. Night approached, I began to feel a little funny, like something was off. When we got in the car to return home, I wondered 'why do my shoulders feel so warm?' It wasn't until I was standing shirtless in front of my bathroom mirror when I realized the full extent of what I'd done. A bright red hue covered my upper body. Biceps into my shoulders and down onto my pectorals. Forehead. A little on the cheeks and tip of my nose.

I'm sure my naked appearance is far more comical than usual. I should mention I had sunscreen with me and failed to apply it.

This burn is the worst of my adult life. Perhaps the worst since high school. But I've been thinking. Is it the worst ever?

The first truly memorable sunburn I ever got was a series of burns over the course of a single summer. At the end of my seventh-grade year, my grandparents drove me from Seattle to visit family near Kansas City, Missouri. In the few weeks I was there, my cousin Allen and I spent our days playing in a local park, hanging out at his dad's church, walking to the candy store in downtown Weston, or swimming.

Twice a week, my aunt would drive Allen, his sisters, and me across the river into Leavenworth, Kansas to go swim at the public pool – a twenty-minute drive each way. My aunt made sure we would get there as early as we could and stay as long as possible. Twice a week, for three weeks, for hours on end, with no use of sunscreen, my cousins and I would play in the water with little shade and fewer breaks. I left the state of Missouri looking like a skinny tomato.

My next road trip was from Weston to Cheyenne, Wyoming. A long drive through the cornfields of Nebraska listening to nothing but country music with my mom's little sister and her husband. My mom was in Cheyenne and we stayed there for Frontier Days before heading back west. The second leg of my journey home was from Cheyenne to Twin Falls, Idaho with my mom and her aunt. We stopped for a weekend long family reunion in Twin Falls - camping at an RV park that had a pool with water slides. I spent two full days riding those slides. There, I received another burn on top of what I got in Leavenworth.

We finally returned home and I resumed my normal summer routine: hiking in the Cascades as much as possible. Toward the end of summer, I attended my church's youth camp on Elbow Lake outside of Yelm, Washington. The camp gave us three hours for free time every afternoon and I spent most of my free time on the water in a canoe … working on my third sunburn of the summer.

After the pool in Leavenworth in June, the water park in Twin Falls in July, and the lake in Yelm in August, I turned into a human slice of toast. By the time I started school again in the fall, those consecutive burns had turned into the darkest tan I've ever been.

The second major memorable sunburn happened when I was fifteen and hiking above the Paradise Lodge on Mount Rainier. The air gets thinner above 5500' elevation. And that afternoon, at 6800' the sky was the deepest and clearest blue I had ever seen and the sun was deceitfully warm. So close to the glaciers and walking on snowpack, I would have expected cooler temperatures. As the day wore on I stripped off layers; by midday, I was down to shorts and a tank top.

(incriminating evidence)

There were two things that my skin had not anticipated. The UV rays are stronger in thinner air. Also, sunlight reflects off snow. At the end of the day, it was obvious I was burned. Legs, arms, shoulders, neck, sides, and back. There were clear tan lines (red lines?) outlining the length of my shorts and shape of my tank top. What made this sunburn memorable are the burnt areas that had never burned before. Light bouncing up from the snow tinged the undersides of my chin and nose.

Now, I'm burned again and it feels like the worst ever. But is it? I don't know. In comparison, it is mild compared to what I've done before. Maybe my age has made me over sensitive. Or it has been so long I've forgotten what it feels like. Or maybe I've lost the youthful energy that compensated for the pain in my younger years. Regardless, I am not enjoying this experience and I am eager for it to fade away.

Going forward, I’ll be adhering to the admonition offered in Mary Schmich's commencement column, which she published in the Chicago Tribune the year I graduated high school: "Wear sunscreen. If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience."

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