Pop Tarts for Dinner…again: Lessons from living alone

National Geographic published an article  recently about guest workers in the United Arab Emirates. Underpaid, far from home, and in a lot of cases…abused, these guest workers do the menial and the necessary in a country that doesn’t have enough citizens to make the UAE economic engine run…let alone ensure the oil is topped off. One interesting part of the article discussed how social media sites such as FaceBook allowed these guest workers stay in touch with the families. I am by no means a guest worker in the traditional sense, but I definitely understand the loneliness and despair that comes from having a job in one location while my wife and family are in another location, and how social media and a cell phone plan with unlimited minutes and texts keeps a husband and stepfather sane. In the military this is called geographic bachelorhood. For me it means Pop Tarts for dinner…again.

When one has a certain set of skills that do not transport easily from one location to the next, it is hard to pack up and move to where the heart is. For me, my supposed expertise in homeland security and counter-terrorism policies do not translate, nor transfer well to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. From Sunday night to Thursday or Friday nights, I live alone in and English basement apartment in the District of Columbia. Fortunately my federal agency allows me to work what is called a compflex schedule, which means that I am able to work 80 hours in 9 days with every other Friday off. So twice a month I have a 3 day weekend…couple this with the ten federal holidays and the 2 days of leave I accrue a month (getting 2 days of leave a month is one of the perks of having nearly 20 years of federal service), I am able to make myself sane by flying to Myrtle Beach (or an airport in close proximity) every Thursday or Friday night to spend time with my wife and stepchildren. Like the vast majority of men my age…living alone isn’t something I am experienced with…until I decided to separate (and eventually divorce) my first wife.

From birth until 18 I lived with my parents. Following graduation from high school, I went to college and had dorm roommates, then fraternity brothers as apartment mates. Then I joined the Army after getting booted from college (too much beer, not enough books) and then I lived in barracks/tents with other young soldiers. Following that I went back to college and got married. From 1991-2011 I lived with my first wife. I had literally never lived alone until October 2011. Any of you can discuss about those trips when your mate or spouse went away for a few days to weeks to months due to family situations…but until you have spent a significant amount of time with being your only roommate, you really have no idea what it is like to be alone…literally fucking alone…waking up morning after morning with no one to smell your awful breath or sniff your nocturnal farts that stayed hidden under the covers until the alarm went off. Nothing says lonely like waking up, throwing back the covers and getting hit by the smell of last night’s digested dinner and having no one to blame but yourself. So here is what I have learned about living alone at starting at the age of 41.

You have no need for dining room or kitchen table.

Really, you have no need of any furniture at all excluding a single comfortable chair and some sort of piece of furniture to support your television (and gaming consoles in my situation). Tables are meant for families, friends, and loved ones to gather around and enjoy meals while they share their day’s events and discuss how Timmy needs to do better in his math class and how Suzy’s latest heartbreak is nothing more than the trials and tribulations of teen love. My expensive asian teak dining room table that my ex wife hated (she didn’t confess this until we divorced and demanded that I take it) is the source of none of these types of conversations and instead is now nothing more that a storage platform for kitty litter, cat food, clean or dirty clothes, and mail that is never opened. Additionally, the table is used as a cat expressway that allows my two neurotic cats to move at a high rate of speed when chasing imaginary mice…or finding solace in snuggling in recently laundered and dried clothes. When you live alone…the last thing you want to do is sit at a table and realize that no one else is there occupying the other chairs. Plopping one’s ass down in a comfy chair with the TV on is how you eat your Pop Tart dinner.

You have no one to blame for messes.

If there are dirty dishes in the sink, you are the one who dirtied them. If there is a pair of underwear on the floor…you are the nasty individual who took them off and missed the laundry basket like an air ball missing the net at the buzzer. If the trash needs to be taken out, there is no one to task except yourself. If the toilet paper is placed backwards on the roll…or is pulled dry and you are looking at nothing but a brown cardboard roll, there is no one to yell at but yourself. If the toilet backs up…or the tub stops up and you shower with dirty water around your ankles…the only hairy beast to blame is yourself. The pile of recycles that grows and grows is not going to magically disappear…you either take out or it stays there looking like the leaning tower of Pisa of pizza boxes that are familiar to us that lived in a fraternity house. That gross pile just grows and grows until someone has had enough. When you live alone, you are the on the only one who will have to reach the point of “I have had of enough of this nasty shit.”

Television is both a help and a hinderance.

When you live alone, you are the master of the remote. You get to decide what will be watched. There is no discussion of what type of televised entertainment is the evening’s selection.  You don’t have to suffer through reality, Disney, or Nickelodeon shows. You don’t have to feel guilty for asking your stepchild to please not re-watch another episode of “How I Met Your Mother” or censor what shows that may not be appropriate for all ages. You can watch Tosh.0 and not be embarrassed for laughing at immature vomit videos. You can watch all those horrible 80s movies without having to explain to teen stepchildren the impact Judd Nelson had on you…or how some of your first masturbatory fantasies revolved around Molly Ringwald in both the Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink. Nor do you have to explain how you identified more with Ducky than that fucking rich douche Molly went for. On the other hand, when a certain movie or show scene is exceptionally funny…there is no one to laugh with. Your lonely laughter bounces off the walls and echoes …your neurotic cats don’t even bother to look up from the slumber to wonder why there is a human noise. What you do find yourself doing is binge watching things like Game of Thrones, Band of BrothersArcher, Family Guy, and NATGEO documentaries…and in the end, there is no one to discuss how the latest indie documentary on the Moldovan sex trade is both tragic and direct result of the globalization of sex. Basically, you watch television while you eat your Pop Tart dinner and wonder what else could spark your interest after you finish, for the fourth time, watching Band of Brothers. Really what you do is pray for baseball season to hurry the fuck up, so you can take a break from marathon sessions of Family Guy.

You don’t read as much as you think you would.

If you are like me and you spend your days reading and writing, going home and opening a book or Kindle is the furtherest thing from your mind. The silence associated with reading does nothing more than reinforce your aloneness. Reading and staying focussed requires a certain desire for quiet…and you have plenty of quiet, so the desire required for reading is not there. Books, magazines, and newspapers pile up in the “I’ll get to that later” area that is scattered throughout the apartment. In reality, the newspapers and magazines become cat chew toys…and then it is just another mess that you have to clean up because the cats sure as fuck ain’t gonna do it.

Social media takes on a greater importance than you realize.

When you live alone and apart from family, you not only interact with your wife via cell phone, FaceTime, Skype, but also a weird interaction via things like FaceBook. My wife and I have developed a banter on FB to inform and interact to stave off the loneliness and keep each other abreast of our daily routines. You also use social media to meet and develop friendships with new and old friends…cause let’s be honest, at my age all my friends are married and have kids. These friends really don’t have time to go out and have a drink with the “single” guy…they have their own lives to run and live. You use social media to reach out beyond the walls of your basement apartment to feel connected. You also use social media to entertain yourself by describing imaginary conversations you have with your idiot cats.

You really do have conversations with your pets.

Yes, I am completely aware that my cats are incapable of talking to me…but I do talk to them. Their actions in return provide some sort of communication that only scientists who study animal behavior and cat ladies understand. Accepting one’s inner cat lady is essential in maintaining some sort of saneness while your evenings are devoid of actual human contact. My cats are my bed partners and I welcome their shedding hair snuggleness at night. Watching them chase each other, beg for my attention, and curling up beside me while I eat my Pop Tart dinner is extremely comforting. I am now at the point of coming to terms of accepting the possibility that if I were to die in the apartment, I am perfectly comfortable with them eating me to survive.

You become an expert at entertaining yourself.

I play a lot of video games either alone or with other friends…actually I play video games to interact with friends in Texas and South Carolina. I am a boss at Call of Duty’s Ghosts, and you will buy every new game that strikes your fancy, because like television, redundant gaming is like redundant TV watching…you need new stimuli. You also become an expert at masturbation. My self-pleasuring in my teen years was pure minor league ball…Double A at best. Today, I am a fucking MVP at masturbation. I am the Hank Aaron of self-pleasure and due to the male visual nature of sexuality, I thank the Internet gods for allowing one to find all the free porn one needs via the plethora of porn sites. Who in the hell pays for porn in this day and age? Of course, even gaming and shaking hands with the unemployed* takes second place to the Pop Tart dinner.

You drink a lot less.

If you are married and going through geographic bachelorhood, you do not go to bars. You do not go out alone and drink…like those guest workers, your paycheck goes to pay for your family. As stated earlier, your married friends don’t have time to meet you constantly for a beer…thus your fridge stays stocked with beer and your kitchen counter top stays covered in a multitude of half empty bourbon bottles that are infrequently touched. Drinking alone doesn’t make you feel better…it makes you feel even more alone. So if you feel you have a drinking problem and live with others, I suggest moving out and finding yourself a small apartment and then sequester yourself. Trust me, the drinking problem will subside.

You might exercise more.

If you exercise, you might pick up the pace of your sweating routine…or you might maintain a minimum level of fitness…or you might stop working out completely. Getting motivated while living alone is very hard. No one stares at your gut and goes “have you put on weight?” or expresses concern for your health. For me, I have at best maintained a minimum amount of physical exercise and haven’t had to go shopping for new pants…but I am not breaking any land speed records with my running. The Pop Tart dinners probably aren’t helping much.

Finally, you have to like yourself.

If you have never lived alone, then you really don’t know yourself. You have no idea who you are, you have no idea of what type of person you are. You don’t have a clue as to what goes on in your head until you are sitting alone watching another episode of Tosh.0 and you laugh at the most inappropriate thing…and suddenly struck by the realization that you are a sick fuck. On the other hand, you get to truly examine the important things in your life and why you sacrifice a bit of your sanity for others. You have to go through some major steps of self-actualization. You have to accept your bad habits and attitudes…and then decide if you want to change them or accept them. You have to not only like yourself, you have to truly love yourself and realize that you aren’t some weird hermit, but a man who is willing to live the life of a weird hermit to support and love others…just like those UAE guest workers…I sacrifice myself with loneliness during the week so I can enjoy the embrace of my wife and stepchildren on the weekends and holidays.

I am not crying in my beer…cause I am not drinking that much beer, but I am learning that I am a person with foibles and faults coupled with outstanding qualities. I am a responsible member of society that happens to have conversations with my cats and an overwhelming desire to eat a lot of Pop Tarts.

*”Shaking hands with the unemployed” is one of the best euphemisms I have ever heard in relation to masturbation and have to thank one of my college roommates for that one.

 

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Cold War Redux or Russian Paranoia

I ain’t no smarter than the rest of these clowns
I’m just making it up as I go along – Randy Foster, “Making It Up As I Go Along

From the constant babble disguised as debate among policymakers and the media, one would assume that Putin is the craziest muthafucka ever or he is a genius and the best strategist to deal with US and Europe since the end of the Cold War. Pragmatists probably fall into a middle camp and refrain from calling him names or singing his praises. Wrapping one’s melon around the who, what, and why of the Ukraine/Russia/Crimea foreign policy crisis is both laborious and confusing. Televised talking heads and clowns only make the debate more confusing, and their constant harping is nothing more than white noise on the radio dial. The real song and only song you should be listening to is Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” because this crisis is nothing more than a long-standing continuation of Russian paranoia. Gordon Adams, at ForeignPolicy.com, says it in “Don’t Poke the Russian Bear” with a disbelieving eye on US and European leaders’ responses.

National Security Strategy 101

Protecting one’s borders and pushing the buffer zone out as far as possible is the first thing one learns if one has any formal or informal national security training. From Kievan Rus to present day, the inherent (integral) Russian need to have vast expanses of land as protection from invaders is so rooted in the Russian mentality that one could argue that is almost visceral. Tsarist, Communist, and present-day Russian designs on empire expansion were not based solely on an Eurasian version of Manifest Destiny. It is also an attempt to ensure that breathing room was afforded to a people/nation that had to not only look warily toward Asia, but toward Europe. Mongols, Napoleonic forces, and Nazis have all knocked on Muscovy/Moscow’s door. Through Kievan Rus submission (payments to Mongols), geographical attrition (space that forced invaders to march endlessly across the steppes), and Mother Winter’s attention (Siberian winters are brutal), Russia has always figured out a technique in protecting itself. Today, Putin continues the natural course of Russian history by doing what is necessary to protect the integrity of Mother Russia. Arguably, Russia’s ability to do the necessary now to ensure survivablity for tomorrow is more of a long road approach to security, especially compared to US foreign policy that seems to be reactive and crisis-based. Just as the Kievan Rus’ Realpolitik action of paying tribute was necessary, Putin’s latest land grab in Crimea (and potentially eastern Ukraine) is both understandable and typical (in both national security and foreign policy terms).

US Foreign Policy

One would hope that those responsible for planning US policy toward Russia have pushed their thinking out like Russia has always pushed out its borders. Reportedly, Putin was dismayed at Muammar Gaddafi’s death and felt it was a direct result of US intervention in Libya. This view on US foreign policy designs further bolstered the idea of US’ actions that resembled empire expansion through its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Following Gaddafi’s execution, the Syrian crisis reinforced Putin’s thinking on how Russian influence and security were being openly challenged by US foreign policy. Russian fears of reduced influence and security are one and the same, and this fear is manifested in Russian land grabbing. Honestly, with the exclusion of Germany (even with Merkel’s obvious dislike of Putin), Russia does not look at western Europe or NATO actions as anything other than the results of American puppeteer moves.  Russia is still reeling from what is now commonly agreed on as their loss in the Cold War. American actions since 1991 give further credence to this Russian loss. Russia has countered American moves in former Yugoslavia and Balkans, the Middle East, and Afghanistan. The final and most recent insult to Russia seems to be what appears to be American influence in the disposing of the pro-Russian government in Ukraine. “Regime Change” has been the foreign policy catchphrase for America since 2001, but in Russian translation it seems to say “influence/empire expansion.” Russian foreign policy is conducted in a strategic environment that resembles a zero-sum game. American gain will always be seen as a Russian loss. At times, one wonders if the Russians have either realized that America is obtuse to its reactive foreign policy actions or if Russians are convinced of some tinfoil-hat theory on America’s desire of world domination. As hopeful as one may be of some grand American strategy for the 21st century, reality of US actions seems to reflect something a little less sinister or forward-looking. Present debate and revelations on US foreign policy seems more of a concoction of constant crisis reaction and continued use of President Bush II’s Administration’s regime change policies. As perplexing as Putin’s actions may seem to us, American actions appear to be even more perplexing.

Rational Action

Putin’s latest moves may be out of desperation considering the Russian loss of a friendly (supplicant) ally in Ukraine, however, a foreign policy based on desperation could still be considered rational. No national security or foreign policy rulebook exists, but if it did, it would definitely have a chapter (with an extensive set of numbered sections akin to the USGA’s rulebook and probably as confusing) about how a nation is to respond in desperation. Basically, “desperation” and “crisis” are interchangeable at this point. Arguably, America’s actions right now might be considered desperate based on what appears to be limited amount of courses of actions available due to the American distaste for direct military action. If one is wondering if Putin is cognizant of American and European reactions, one must recognize that it appears that Putin and his planners have (at a minimum) thought about the intended and unintended consequences of their moves. Even the use of the word “rational” appears out of sync. What one may think here in America as rational is not necessarily so somewhere else. Examples of what US thought on other nations’ rational actions run the gambit from melon-scratching on North Korea’s constant attempts to piss the world off to total exasperation with the Mexican government’s inability to control and neutralize its drug cartels. One can hope that US planners and policymakers are attempting to walk a mile in Russian shoes prior to acting in response. Ultimately, that is the rub when it comes to this crisis…Putin and Russia have the initiative and the best America can do at this time is continue its reactive actions based on examining Russian actions. Reality deems it necessary to drop all references to “rational” or “irrational” because, either way, responding to the world as it is takes dominance over responding to the world as we think it should be.

Reality

In the end, it truly does come down to responding to the ground truth now. Tying Russian strategic thought with American foreign policy follows a somewhat linear path that shows that Putin was watching and feeling Russia’s security shrink. Questioning his or America’s actions as rational is (at this point)worthless. Continued US foreign policy planning that appears to be nothing but crisis response will continue to bolster Putin’s ability to dictate the moves of the US and Europe. If one was capable of predicting the future, one would probably be as confused at the final result of this crisis as everyone seems to be now in the midst of it. What really matters though, after one combs through some readings and research, is that Russia needs…viscerally needs…a buffer zone. Regardless of the Crimea’s Russian majority (or its fake “election” to leave Ukraine), regardless of the convoluted Crimean history of bouncing between Ukraine and Russia, regardless of the obvious Russian national security need for a warm water port…this crisis is the result of Russian memory of both real and imagined threats. US policymakers would do well to quit thinking it is about them and realize this is about Russia.

The clowns and their white noise that bounce between “Putin sees Obama’s weakness” and “Putin is insane” and “Putin is a fascist” would better serve their needs by recognizing the historical necessity of space…true geographical space…as imagined and experienced by the Russians. There seems to be a self-delusional thought among American policymakers that Putin and Russia are reacting to the most recent events in Ukraine…when really Putin and Russia are reacting to a multiple of historical events that predate the very beginning of the US. Sadly, clowns like me are forced to make it up as we go along because American policymakers are unable (or unwilling) to know another country’s history.