Musings from a “one-man flash mob” ( Toronto Star )
Comedian Shawn Hitchins explores his irreverent nature in this debut collection of essays. Hitchins doesn’t shy away from his failures or celebrate his mild successes he sacrifices them for an audience’s amusement. He roasts his younger self, the effeminate ginger-haired kid with a competitive streak. The ups and downs of being a sperm donor to a lesbian couple. Then the fiery redhead professes his love for actress Shelley Long, declares his hatred of musical theatre, and recounts a summer spent in Provincetown working as a drag queen.
Nothing is sacred. His first major break-up, how his mother plotted the murder of the family cat, his difficult relationship with his father, becoming an unintentional spokesperson for all redheads, and mandy moore many more.
Blunt, awkward, emotional, ribald, this anthology of humiliation culminates in a greater understanding of love, work, and family. Like the final scene in a Murder She Wrote episode, A Brief History of Oversharing promises everyone the A-ha! moment Oprah tells us to experience. Paired with bourbon, Scottish wool, and Humpty Dumpty Party Mix, this journey is best read through a lens of schadenfreude.
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About the Author
Best known for sparking the global wave of Ginger Pride by marching hundreds of redheads through the streets of Edinburgh, Shawn Hitchins is an award-winning entertainer who has toured throughout Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. Hitchins was raised in a hayfield, educated in a swamp, and still has all his own teeth. He resides in Toronto, Ontario (a city he’s tried to escape since Y2K).
Read an Excerpt
WILL THERE BE SHADE?
Every six months, I stand in front of my dermatologist, wearing my best and cleanest pair of underwear.
Sockless and acting nonchalant, I wait for the examination to begin, anticipating a worst-case diagnosis. My dermatologist, Dr. Levi, begins by sliding a manila envelope out from my patient chart. The kind of envelope that is written into thrillers where a politician is blackmailed with a series of adulterous snaps. Black-and-white photos captured through a vertical blind reveal a middle-aged congressman kissing a sex worker. His shameful secret hidden safely ... for a price.
Scandalous contents like that would be a welcome reveal.
Unfortunately, my envelope contains medical photos: shot in a medical photography studio, by a medical photographer (a technician) who climbed his way out of Service Ontario and who is biding his time (making living people appear dead) until a position in the coroner's office opens. The photos are securely stored in my doctor's office and I would be mortified if they were ever leaked, not because they are NSFW but because they are so asexual it would create an entire new genre of pornography called pity porn.
In the photos, a younger (twinkier) me stands in Calvin Klein underwear recreating awkward contrapposto positions found only on the tombs of pharaohs. The runway stances highlight the natural beauty marks that decorate my body. I am a hundred Cindy Crawford moles in one mortal. In the more risqué shots, I pull down my underwear to reveal my buttocks while internally trying to feel Costco Connection sexy for the camera. The entire lousy shoot cost me forty-five dollars and to this day these glossies remain the only nude photos of me (with my head not cropped off).
I should have demanded the negatives.
The photos are an archive, a mapping of the layers of cells and groupings of melanin that compose my skin, used to compare then to now (and future nows), a control to measure change.
"You're a comedian? That's a terrible job!" Dr. Levi remarked during one of my first visits as he scanned the giraffe-like patterns on my shoulders.
I admit: it is a terrible fucking job.
But then I reminded my doctor that he actually went to medical school to stare at moles, herpes, and plantar warts until retirement, and that half his patients are white males above the age of sixty-five. (The same demographic of towel-less men who abuse the complimentary hand dryers in gym locker rooms, drying their saggy ass cracks and fanning their foreskins for everyone to see.)
Most of my appointments with Dr. Levi consist of playing this terrible pointing game called Cancer? Not Cancer. The rules are simple: I point to the various parts of my body then ask, "Cancer?" and Dr. Levi shakes his head and says, "Not cancer." We go back and forth like this until Dr. Levi points to something I didn't see and says, "Cancer!" And we laugh.
Levi plays this game for a living, which is probably why he wants to outsource his routine to someone less qualified, like a loved one. Dr. Levi once prescribed me a long-term relationship so that I could have someone "I trust" to "perform weekly mole checks" on my back. Because according to the medical community, the most successful relationships occur when all walls of intimacy are shattered, all mystery is eviscerated, and all Friday nights are spent watching reruns of Gilmore Girls while checking each other's moles for irregular borders. Only within the context of a stable relationship can one take a selfie of a heart-shaped precancerous lesion and text it with a personalized, "Does this look funny, bae?"
Dr. Levi checks everywhere: the soles of my feet, my armpits, even my "down there" area. He is an eccentric professional who refuses to say the words "penis" or "vagina" because they "creep him out." Instead, he uses euphemisms during his examinations. Once, Levi took the Bic pen he was writing with and used it to examine down there. First, he shimmied the blunt end of the pen under my left testicle and lifted it up-and-out, forming a waterfall of scrotum. He inspected the skin underneath. Left side all good. Then he swooped over the right side and sawed his way back and forth until he got another gander. Right side all good. Finally, he lifted the pen up towards his mouth, placed the end that had been wedged under my balls to his lips, clamped down on the plastic tube, and hummed a pensive yet satisfying hmmm.
I just stared at his mouth sucking on the pen.
I teabagged my doctor by proxy.
Levi's bedside manner is more appropriate for a bunk bed in a hostel, and it's a rare occasion that I don't leave his office biopsied into a piece of Swiss cheese, but if you're going to hear you have a dysplastic mole over the phone, it's best delivered like this:
"Hey Shawn! Don't panic! You're not going to die, but let's just say ... you owe me a bottle of wine."
The largest organ on my body is a ticking time bomb. At some point, I will confront melanoma, more melanoma than the scars on my body already chronicle. This is the joy of being a redhead (a Ginger, a Ranga, a Stop Sign, a Viking Sunset); this is the fate of having Fitzpatrick Type 1 skin (a medical classification meaning you always burn and never tan). And I struggle with my inability to remedy this situation simply because I cannot undo the damage from the past.
I can't negotiate with my childhood sunburns, the early exposure that now causes things shaped like the United Kingdom to appear on my upper thigh. As an '80s baby, I had the full force of the sun blazing on me before Bill Clinton single-handedly fixed the ozone layer. Back then, baby oil was applied liberally to a child's skin before they danced naked in a playpen filled with quicksand, ticks, and rusty nails while fighting off rabid dogs and stranger danger with a bat made of lead paint and asbestos. I have blistered and peeled more layers of skin than a California corn snake: these are irreversible circumstances.
As a grown adult, you would hope that your skin would engage an innate survival tactic by producing a gorgeous even tan. Let's call it "the Italian Instinct." I had a roommate who had this theory that if I went to a tanning bed, I could build up a tolerance, so she bought me a package of ten sessions at a posh Yorkville tanning salon as a Christmas gift. I went to one session. I stripped down, lubed up my body with this gel, then slid into a non-stick neon coffin. I just lay there, illuminated in blue light, my skin searing, while the Backstreet Boys were piped in through a speaker. Our experiment didn't work and now every time I hear "Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)" I stop, drop, and roll.
I cannot will my body to generate a defense mechanism. I can't generate a fluffier tail for winter like a squirrel. I can't sweat blood to protect myself from the sun like a hippopotamus. So now I live my life like an indoor cat.
I don't tan.
I don't go to the beach.
I know what time of day I can walk outside and in what direction, depending on the placement of the sun for the given calendar date.
I wait at traffic lights in the shadows cast from a building instead of at the curb.
I have a Lycra UV-blocking swimsuit that makes me look like a blue superhero sausage.
I wear unflattering wide-brimmed straw hats.
Whenever a friend invites me to an "awesome summer barbecue," I immediately ask, "Will there be shade?" Then I demand the architectural blueprints of their home and a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree panoramic shot of the backyard as POS (Proof Of Shade) before accepting their invitation. I calculate the day's UV Index cross-multiplied by the time of sunset to determine what grade of SPF I should apply (the answer is never less than aluminum foil). Then I consult a local arborist and commission an environmental assessment to detail the species of shade trees indigenous to the postal code I'm traveling to. Finally, I soak myself in a vat of toxic sunscreen and allow it to seep into my lymph nodes. Then and only then will I enter an "awesome summer barbecue" two hours late and dressed like a slutty gay scarecrow.
This is the reality of being me.
I was born high-maintenance.
DENIAL IN EGYPT
I am from Egypt, Ontario.
I will not embellish this statement by harkening back to my ancestry. I will not glorify it by saying, "I'm from Egypt, Ontario, but ... my grandparents and great-grandparents were World War I – and Depression-era immigrants from England and Denmark." I do not suffer the Canadian fear that by admitting you are from South-Central Ontario (and only from South-Central Ontario), you declare your origins to be incredibly ordinary — which mine are.
I am from Egypt, Ontario.
My heritage is an intersection.
Two country roads carved a path through rolling hayfields, lush pastures, and low swampland, and at their crossing families gathered. The surrounding cattle and sod farms caught in its radius created a border that was upheld and defended by proud farmers who agree, "It's always a great day in Egypt!"
My family lived in a small discharge-yellow home situated on the northeast corner of Egypt's main (and only) junction. Adjacent to my family home, in opposite corners, sat the Egypt Hall and the Egypt Church of the Nazarene — simply named for exactly what they are, no-frill structures for mayonnaise-based celebrations. Either one of these landmarks could have been adorned with the honorable name of humorist Stephen Leacock, whose childhood home lay unmarked by historical plaque only several fields away. However, Leacock is neither Egyptian nor immortalized as such, and if you've read Leacock, you are most definitely not from Egypt.
The southwest corner remained an open field lined with crab apple and pear trees that bore inedible fruit. The land served as an important catch basin for speeding cottagers who would find their cars suddenly airborne and upside down after underestimating Egypt's infamous death jog in the road. For decades, my family has pried Torontonians from their engulfed vehicles, dragged them to safety, ushered them into ambulances, whispered a little prayer, and declared in police statements: "Someone should really put up a sign about that corner."
There is still no sign.
Egypt is not a town (you must drive fifteen minutes to get to town) but a mindset. It's an amalgamation of family clans where it's easier to flat-out accept everyone as a cousin than it is to map bloodlines and calculate generations of separate family trees grafted together and struck by lightning. This is my poetic understanding of what it means to be conditioned like an inbred without actually being genetically inbred: you're either a cousin or you're an outsider.
My mother, Linda, and my father, Ian ("a townie"), partitioned an acre of land off my grandfather's farm in 1975, and they built their home from architectural plans selected out of a catalog of prefabricated bungalow dreams. This succession plan was established by my grandfather Clarence Smockum, who bought side-by-side farms with his brother Kenneth in 1952, and alongside their respective wives, Elsie and Norma, they tilled the earth, raising crops, herds of cattle, and flocks of children. Although we carried the last name Hitchins, we were very much raised as Smockums.
Clarence was the very definition of an Ontario farmer, only he had magical powers. He could witch for water using a forked branch; herd the cattle from the pasture to the feed trough every morning by calling "ko-bah"; shoot a raccoon out of a tree without looking; mend tools, tractor parts, and fences using only baler twine; drive his brown GMC as slowly as his red Massey Ferguson (and his tractor as fast as his truck). He owned a hunting dog named Amos who was immortal and could change breeds every two years.
Clarence struggled after Elsie died of pancreatic cancer in 1981. He would live in his farmhouse for a handful of years as an unhappy bachelor, which countered his nature as a vibrant, stout man with flat feet and a wreath of gray hair. When he met Helen Westgarth, a widow from nearby Udora, she arrived in Egypt with her own set of powers. Helen could switch stoplights to green by snapping her fingers, transform balls of yarn into beautiful blankets, sear a roast so intensely the smell wafted over hayfields and signaled Sunday-night dinner, paint an animal on any piece of wood. Helen also brought with her a large family with even more cousins, and Egypt grew tenfold on her arrival. Although Clarence and Helen would never marry, they became companions until his death in 1996, at the age of sixty-nine. Helen became the only grandmother I would know.
My other grandfather, Albert Hitchins, was a solitary man who lived in town, in nearby Sutton. After his wife, Ethel, died in 1983, he remained a widower until his death in 2006, at the age of ninety-four. His only companion during that time was Chester, a foul-breathed, flea-ridden, ginger-haired dog with skin tags. Albert lived a short drive away, but we hardly saw him, except on the occasional Friday night when my parents would go curling and needed a babysitter. Then Lori, my older sister, and I would sit on Albert's twill couch eating meatball subs and drinking A&W root beer while watching WWF wrestling and John Wayne westerns until late the next morning: that is, experiencing the life of a townie.
Albert was a reserved man who carried the coldness of someone born in England at the threshold of World War I. He didn't own a car or a set of dentures. He walked wherever he went and he ate the same thing almost every day: hamburger goulash with a side of HP Sauce. He was poor but resourceful, and he was ribbed for refilling old glass Coca-Cola bottles with water and storing them in his fridge. We could have been scions of bottled water. His home was small, dark, musty-smelling, and it seemed mathematically impossible that a family of seven could have been raised in such tight quarters. Inside his home it seemed as if time had stopped in 1983 when Ethel died, but his property was vibrant and full of life.
There was a lush garden of mature trees, manicured hedges, and long thoroughfares of grass separating wide beds of perennial flowers and allotments of vegetable plants. Every July, the entire Hitchins family gathered in Albert's garden for a barbecue, an event that inevitably ended in either an anxious spat between siblings or a playful water fight that turned into an anxious spat between siblings. It was an opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with the other cousins (the near strangers) who lived in subdivisions, in cities, and out of province. Lori and I were recognized as the redneck cousins (the near strangers) who lived in the middle of a hayfield and didn't have access to cable or MTV.
My mother has spent her life on the same acreage, and the stories of her childhood sound straight out of pioneer times. She attended a one-room schoolhouse where a strap was used for enforcement, slates and chalk were writing implements, and a commode (an indoor open well of sewage capped with his-and-hers toilet seats) was the only option. (Indoor plumbing, even in homes, was an unaffordable luxury until the late '60s for most country dwellers.) The children of Egypt were eventually bussed to a regional public school built on a swamp, and the schoolhouse was repurposed as a hall for the Egypt Women's Institute, before changing hands several times and then, in 1989, being razed.
On that day, our front lawn was lined with fellow Egyptians who watched the decrepit building crack open with the force of four tractors pulling in opposition. The adults mourned the brittle snapping of the walls with tears, while the children obnoxiously cheered the revving of tractors and the giant plume of dust. The community banded together and built a new hall. The men worked in their spare time, after work and on weekends, year-round to construct the new building. The women made meals and supervised the children as they collected roofing nails and scrap from the ground and chipped mortar off the old red bricks so they could be resold.
When the building was complete, the preserved schoolhouse bell was placed on its steeple as a symbol of pride. Its ringing signaled an Egyptian Spring filled with corn roasts, hay-wagon rides, community dances, and baseball games. Brown mesh trucker hats branded with "Beautiful Downtown Egypt" seemed to be the latest fashion craze. Egypt got its own Little League team, the Egypt Camels, and we practiced on a baseball diamond cut into a cornfield. It was our very own Field of Dreams. When lightning struck the school bell in 2012, the hall burned to the ground. The very next day, the community banded together (once again) and began rebuilding the structure exactly as it was. Yet they bemoan that the brand-new community hall "doesn't feel the same." Change is not a welcome force in Egypt, never has been and never will be.
Excerpted from "A Brief History of Oversharing"
Copyright © 2017 Shawn Hitchins.
Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Will There Be Shade?
Denial in Egypt
Voted Most Likely to Be Sterilized
I Remember Apple Pie
My Theme Song
Failure (The Orphan with Personality)
What Would Liza Do?
The Visible Horizon
All Hail the Red, Orange, And Pale!
Post-Theatrical Stress Disorder
I Hate Musicals
FK / LW
Summa Cum Laude
There’s No U in the Word Me
I Am Joni Mitchell
Don’t Call Me Ma’am
Riddle Me This
A Brief History of Oversharing
I Hear Catherine Zeta-Jones Is Available