Saturday, August 04, 2007

I discovered the sunburn in the shower. When the water struck my back, the objections and exhortations of my overly cautious mother came back to me. The words, to this day, are perfectly associated with three visual images of that day—seagulls picking apart an inflatable Disney character stuffed with fish heads (the work of a fraternity), a teenager pissing on a sleeping dog, and a pair of harlequin pants in the hotel swimming pool.

“You are turning bright red. Let me spray you with this lithium based sedative sunscreen gel. It ‘lowers the body temperature while raising fun parameters in the youngster to near lethal values.’ It’s got Blockinol™ and UValene™.”

"Mom, I’m not burning!"

Despite years of outdoor surveillance, my mom always misinterpreted whatever symptoms I happened to exhibit. 1

“My skin is red because my inhibitions are leaving me at a rate incommensurate with my mass and body fat percentage. The anxieties are passing through the skin as the normal means of escape are blocked! It’s metastasizing into a condition not unlike Rosacea but comprised wholly of formerly sublimated desires now grown manifest!”

“How can your coping mechanisms be blocked already? We just had you tuned. What do you think all that classic rock hypnosis therapy was for? Do you think we listened to all that Peter Frampton for our health? Dr. Watts assured us that the sheer power of arena rock riffmasters like Boston, Queen, and in some regards, the underappreciated tonic infections of Edgar Winter, would prevent the social unease that so hindered your earlier efforts concerning transition between interactive spheres. Are you in a peer group that provokes you or provides you with an uncomfortable environment in which to overcome your crippling neuroses?”

“Mom! The guys are right here! It’s just that…It’s just...” This sort of dialogue was not appropriate for the beach, so I stood faltering.

“Spit it out, boy.” My father bellowed, growing impatient and a little pink himself. Every second my mother drew attention to her son’s various distresses, both dermatological and social, was a second she wasn’t mixing him an ovaltine belvedere. (The OB is the drink of choice for all aging men of leisure whose families no longer appreciate the need for hard work, a group with which my father desperately wished to associate himself. What if some aging man of leisure were to stroll past, grumbling about his children and their respective lacks of concern about the future and find my father with an old-fashioned, or worse, a midori sour, or some such communist beverage? My older brother had reminded my father once that a more likely communist beverage would be a vodka and borscht toddy, but the old man hadn’t heard. He was too busy practicing his knowing glances and exasperated sighs in the hall mirror for future use at the clubs where aging men of leisure gathered.)

“It’s just that all my normal coping mechanisms seem a bit contrived out here on the beach.”

I was losing momentum.

One of the boys nearby chimed in, giggling, “Look, I’m coping with the possibility of future trauma by visualizing positive outcomes for the situations that bring me the greatest stress!” He began to tear up from suppressed laughter, and this effort inspired the rest of my friends to join in.

“Hey, check this out!” The smallest of the boys, a blond kid wearing cutoffs and one flipper, put on his most mechanical frown and dropped his voice and his brow, intoning, “Let’s role play. I am an authority figure with whom you’ve taken issue. How do you feeeeel (he stretched it out for over a minute by utilizing circular breathing techniques) about my continued perceived interference?” They all cracked up and fell on the sand, holding their sides, eventually taking turns holding each other’s sides as the effort became too great.

My mother just rolled her eyes and slid her sunglasses back up the slope of that cartilaginous beak of hers. The glasses immediately slipped down a little, as the ascent was well lubricated by mom sweat. I began to count the number of drops that fell into her Tilapia Daiquiri. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. She dismissed me.

“Go on then, burn. Don’t come crying to me about lotions, salves, and military grade neurotoxins which can be used, in dire circumstances, to damage neural tissue sufficiently to suppress all but the most subconscious distresses .”

Despite her instructions to handle my burns myself, should they occur, I requested her assistance after the second flush-induced ice-water/boiling-water combo sent my way by my brother. She carried me to the nearest bed with only minimal complaint (although I think I might have heard the words “disown” and “grounded” in passing). In retrospect, these whispers may have been a verbal smokescreen, a momentary diversion, to draw my attention away from the phrase “…sold into slavery via the academic black market. Those guys at Cornell are always in the market for a crybaby with a predilection for UV absorption. They’re weird that way. Call SeƱor Palo Alto and have him set it up.” I recall the sound of a ham radio being tuned and retuned. Whistlers.

My father comforted me in the only way he knew how (or at least was willing to attempt), he told me a story from his youth, presumably to instill in me the sort of grit and guts he felt I was lacking.