Brown and crunchy on doctor's orders

Thursday, March 5, 2009

March 5, 2009

Dear Patty,

I wonder how long it will be before one of my friends asks why I'm turning brown here at the beginning of March. So far they either haven't noticed or decided not to.

I am turning brown because my general practitioner told me to. Because the medicine he gave me for a rash on my chest had no effect, and one of the alternate therapies is exposure to ultraviolet light. If this were spring or summer I could soak up healing rays in the backyard. Instead I'm slinking in and out of a tanning salon.

The very idea appalled me when tanning salons first began appearing a few decades ago. You lie down in a big oven and broil your skin until it's brown and crunchy like toast? Even back then dermatologists were opposed. In Humboldt County, Calif., my home at the time, nobody goes to the beach to get a tan. They go to soak up the power of the ocean waves crashing against monumental black rocks. They go to search for the glowing agates hiding among the glistening pebbles at low tide. They go to walk in the sand and stare out toward China.

Even women in rainy Humboldt County didn't care about tans. Many wore long skirts and Birkenstock sandals and shone with healthiness. It's a Humboldt County joke that no one tans there, they rust.

Going to a tanning salon for the first time was like venturing into no man's land. A glass case holds a variety of tanning emollients with sizzling names. Posters of beautiful brown women are on the walls. On her computer the receptionist programs your room's bed with the requested amount of tan time. I remember hoping she is an accurate typist.

Ten minutes is enough for me. That's wussy. Many go longer, and some of the rooms have super cooker beds.

Indoor tanning is not so terrible after all. Unless the person in the room next door turns on a loud radio, it's actually kind of soothing, a break from the world. It's just you and a bright light, sort of like a near-death experience.

It turns out I am not the only male in Cape Girardeau going to a tanning salon. When I see another man there I want to explain that I'm only doing this because of a medical condition, not because I want to look burnished. But if I did he'd have to explain himself, too, and we'd both end up looking at the floor.

My dermatologist thinks the UV rays are working but cautioned that he usually warns patients against doing exactly what I'm doing. He has prescribed another three weeks of tanning. By then spring and more sunshine will be here. I'll no longer be the middle-aged guy hanging out at the tanning salon. I'll be the middle-aged guy walking around without a shirt.

Love, Sam

Sam Blackwell is a former reporter for the Southeast Missourian.

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