Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Norman Is My Glue Trap

Audio / Podcast

Norman, Oklahoma, is my personal glue trap.

Others would say La Brea tar pit, but I’m not feeling grandiose enough to put myself in the league of woolly mammoths or Pleistocene cave goats or sabre-toothed tigers – the food chain (I almost typed “fool chain”) captured as a tableaux vivant somewhere in what is now part of the most-trafficked section of Los Angeles.

I’m not sure why no one has thought to juxtapose the Ice Age drama of hungry animals trapped in tar and, unable to move, witnessing themselves frozen forever as either predator or prey, with Hieronymous Bosch’s triptych, “The Garden of Earthly Delights” where human beings are similarly mired in flagrante delicto, pitchforks in hand, eyes open in horror or scrunched shut.

The woolly mammoths were never eaten by the sabre-toothed tigers.
The tigers did not attack.

All died by the same hand: starvation or dehydration, unless they drowned in the tarry stuff. The hot tar bubbled up like water in a lovely artesian well, but gripped and suffocated (and ultimately preserved) all who strayed into the warm, gluey depths.

What’s our personal tar pit? Bosch would suggest “desire” – the Pleistocene Ice Age climate change drama would suggest “hunger” (sort of the same thing, but de-sexualized).

I’m not sure what I think.

I was once asked to be a  “loaned executive” for the United Way. It was when I worked for Kerr-McGee Corporation in downtown Oklahoma City. I was flattered, but in reality, they had to go pretty far down on the totem pole to find me. I was not an executive. In fact, I did not even qualify for entrance into Kerr-McGee’s “Executive Dining Room.”  I was working as a business writer in Corporate Communications, later to ascend to international operations analysis for Kerr-McGee Chemical, which was something of a miracle because I was a more or less unemployable geologist, not a communications specialist, although I did have a number of English courses under my belt, as well as being 3 hours away from a master’s degree in Economics. So, I did have “business” somewhere in my kit bag, as well as “writer.”  I was 29 years old.

For six weeks, I reported to the downtown Oklahoma City YMCA where I had a desk in what amounted to a kind of “bull pen” – no cubes, just a sea of old, horrible desks.

I always parked in the same place and walked into the Downtown “Y” and took the rickety elevator (or the dark, sweat-smelling stairs) to my desk on the 5th floor.

Sometimes I had to make my way through a small gauntlet of protesters outside the Federal Building. It was the Murrah Building, and it was a few years before the bombing, but of course, no one knew that its time was limited. I will say that there was definitely not anything to act as any kind of barrier between the street and the front entrance.

That was where I went to get my passport. I also went there for some other reason, but now I’ve forgotten, or put it out of my head. I hate standing in lines, especially long ones that terminate with a stone-faced federal employee.

The entire building smelled of mold and chlorine, and although I could, ostensibly, use the pool and the facilities, the 20-yard pool that was chock-full of churning, wind-milling downtown worker swimmers, filled me with fear and loathing. I had swum competitively for 10 years, and, while not very good, I had managed to letter for my high school, and I did win ribbons and medaled at the Oklahoma Summer Junior Olympics.

I listened to a lot of Jars of Clay, Smiths, Pet Shop Boys, and Nine Inch Nails. I had not yet discovered the Heart Sutra, and my idea of staying in the moment or disciplining my mind was to work myself into the deepest, darkest emotional frenzy I could. The descent was giddying at first, but there was definitely no euphoria at being at the cold, fetid bottom of slick-walled well. 

No way out.

In the end, my team won the award and a plaque for the highest number of donations. My motto was “No Tactic Is Too Low,” which meant I spent a lot of time calling corporate headquarters and local branch managers, whom I attempted to bribe with lots of free publicity. It usually worked. It helped that they were usually well aware of the carnage of the oil bust, which was still going on, with no signs of ending any time soon. Oklahoma City was rapidly depopulating.

On the surface, I know I seemed upbeat and perky. In reality, I was having a hard time with it all. Every time I had to show the film that featured learning-challenged kids, and then the song “A Place for Us” I would turn the other way, my eyes waterfalls of tears. Every time I had to lead tours at the Red Cross, and the “donor bone” center, I would start to faint when they described the process, the “harvesting” of donor bone from the cadaver (the donor), and the machines that processed the bone.

It happened more than once. I would be in the donor bone center, and the American Red Cross representative would be cheerfully discussing the amazingly positive advances (technology), and then they’d fire up the Donor Bone Cleaning Machine, and I would – every time! – begin to faint. I cringed, felt a sympathetic response in the long bones (arms, legs), and then watch as the world went black except for a pinpoint of light…

The only way to arm myself against fainting was to go outside where I could not hear the sound of the “soylent green” machines – the loud whirring and sucking sounds of the bones being prepared for shipping and implanting.

Thankfully, I could turn and run (or at least drive) away.

The same could not be said for the mice in my desk. I came in one late afternoon, wrung out from fighting traffic, and I pulled out stationery to write a thank you letter for one of the companies that had agreed to let me make a “There’s a Place for Us” presentation, when I noticed the edge was chewed, and there was a bit of what appeared to be urine and mice or hamster droppings.

The YMCA, as you probably guessed already, was later destroyed in the OKC bombing of the Murrah Building and it was crawling with mice and other vermin.

There was an easy solution for that, said the local branch manager of Norris Office Solutions (cleaning, updating, pest control).  He handed me a couple of glue traps.

“Just peel off the lids and stick the glue trays in your desk drawer, or wherever you expect them to walk before they get on your valuable papers.”  I poked the glue lightly with my index finger.  Ick. Sticky.

The glue traps worked. The next time I returned from a couple of United Way “A Place for Us” presentations, fellow “loaned executives” were huddled around my desk, voices bright with shock, mixed with pity and horror.

“Susan! There is a MOUSE and he is DYING in your desk!!” Marquesa had big blonde 80s hair, and I never liked her anyway. She was the only one of the group that was even more shameless than I was at extorting companies into returning the United Way pledge envelopes filled with employee pledges.

Yes, a small mouse was indeed writhing in the glue, unable to wrench free. The end came quickly when he put his face in it, so death came in a matter of minutes rather than days.

If he had been big rattus norwegicus, with a foot-long shiny bald tail, I am sure he would have engendered no sympathy. The tiny little mouse, however, did.

And, as I return to Norman yet again, and I stand up to my knees in emotional glue, I wonder if I’m a tiny “cute” mouse, or a disgusting rattus norwegicus. I know what I consider myself to be. I also wonder if it will take days, weeks, years, or if I’ll stick my snout right into the psychological goo, and it will be the end of it.

I hear the whir and glug-glugging of the donor bone machine.

Oh. No, not yet, I guess. Thankfully, I’m asleep.