Groundhog Day

Posted by John Matel
November 29, 2007
John Matel in Iraq

John Matel serves as Team Leader of the Al Asad Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team in Iraq.

Not long after I arrived in Iraq, I wrote a post on my personal blog called, "Get a Life." I was trying to find something to do that was not work related. Nobody can work flat out forever. But there was just no place to go or anything else to do but work. We live in small trailers w/o bathrooms. The office is nicer than home, so most of us just stay at work. Beyond that, the Marines have a ferocious work ethic and an unrelenting positive attitude. The Colonel is working when I get here in the morning at around 8 and even if I leave the office at 11:45 (2345 to them) many Marines are still here. Of course, they take time for PT and other activities during the day. I do not mind putting in some time, but I resolved to adapt and I think I have.

First I carved out time in the morning for running and time for blogging in the evening. Running is a good way to relax and stay in reasonably good condition. A run around Camp Ripper is around 4 miles. I usually actually run only three and walk the last one. The Marines sometimes run past me and offer encouragement. They are trying to be nice, but it reminds me how much slower I have become over 30 years of running. The recent weather has helped. Summer temperatures are brutal, but we are currently enjoying "Tahoe weather". It gets cool at night and goes into the middle 80s during the day. It is sunny almost all the time. The blogging is important as a way to keep connected with people back home. (I am not referring here to the Dipnote blog, BTW.) I noticed that many soldiers or Marines do it too, or they use email list serves. This connectedness is a big difference from my first isolated FS post 20 years ago. Some of my friends and relatives regularly read my personal blog. Knowing that they are paying attention helps me be happier over here.

And you just have to take what moments of humor and grace you can find. Recently, for example, I went out for a few minutes to sit under a eucalyptus trees, across from the portable toilets. As I let the rest of the world go by - trucks, helicopters and men going into the green plastic outhouse - onto my I-pod came "Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini" by Rachmaninoff. If you saw the movie "Groundhog Day”, you know this music. It is a calm and soothing. Life is made of such moments. It was funny. The soundtrack did not go with this particular scene, but my experience here is reminiscent of the "timeless" theme in "Groundhog Day".

The most important thing to do in a timeless situation is to mark progress or at least change. We have frequent travels and interaction with Iraqi local political leaders, sheiks and sometimes just ordinary people. It is easy to let all these meeting just wash over you, but the generally good practice of writing notes and "memcons" is also very useful for marking progress. In this case, what is good for work is also good for personal happiness. In an environment where you work long house seven days a week and the weather does not change much day-to-day, such milestones of achievement are essential. Besides, I am learning a great deal from actively listening to local concerns and aspirations with the intent of having to recall and write down the content later.

I live in Iraq, but not everything can be about Iraq all the time. I make time to read books every day. I admit that several of the books I read were still about Iraq, but I also read books about the Byzantine Empire (okay Iraq is nearby) forestry and climate change. I was also happy to learn that I have sufficient download speed to get audio books and I have been able to listen to Alan Greenspan's "Age of Turbulence" and Robert Reich's "Supercapitalism" on the way to chow or while waiting for helicopters or humvees. I spend a lot of time waiting for these things and it is good to use the time for something. The I-Pod is the best thing to come along for a person without easy access to large libraries, since in that small package hundreds of books or podcasts.

I find that I am reading and listening to more quality things here in Iraq than I was back home. When you see newspapers a few days late, you realize how much of the news is good only for a couple of days or even hours. If you miss the dip in the Dow and it goes back up, what does it matter? If it does not, what are you going to do about it anyway?

I don't know if this blog entry makes people more enthusiastic about joining the FS or coming to Iraq. At this point, it is just a lot less exciting in Iraq - and less dangerous - than people back home think, or than it was just a few months ago. Iraq is like any post or any place else. You can travel thousands of miles, but you always have to take yourself along. It is up to you to get a life and make it a good one not matter where you are. Living in the dust of Iraq just makes that clearer.



Internet M.
New York, USA
November 29, 2007

IM in New York writes:

Your doing a great job... and I love the pic.

Very cool!

Tennessee, USA
November 30, 2007

Stu in Tennessee writes:

Interesting post. I see the Colonel works, the Marines work but all you are interested in is jogging and blogging. Same Same Foreign Service in Viet Nam. Just putting in your time. What a waste of taxpayer money the FS is.

John M.
November 30, 2007

Dipnote Blogger John Matel writes:

@ Stu in Tennessee -- Most days I work from around 8am until after 10pm. During the day I try to take an hour to run. I blog after I get done at around 10. We work 7 days a week. On Sunday, we get to come in after lunch. Travel is hard and we might get in at 2am.

Taking time to read, regenerate and "sharpen the saw" is important. Much of that, however, I do when I am stuck someplace. If you have experience traveling in a war zone, you understand that you spend a lot of time waiting for helicopters and convoys. I can waste that time or try to use it. I apologize if I did not convey my situation to you in terms you could understand.

Let me be very simple. The taxpayers pay me for 40 hours a week. Most weeks I work about 80. In addition there is significant discomfort and physical risk. I do not think my downtime is excessive. Beyond that, I have learned from experience that it makes no sense to try to sprint through a marathon. If you are not satisfied, perhaps I can refund whatever portion of my salary I did not earn that comes from the taxes you personally paid.

Florida, USA
December 3, 2007

Ashley in Florida writes:

Well said Mr. John Matel. In any job, foreign or domestic, it's important to take time to replenish the mind in order to perform at your very best. Thank you for all of your hard work. And from me to you, thanks for putting in the overtime.

United States
December 5, 2007

Eliza in U.S. writes:

I enjoyed reading your posts on Iraq. Thank you for sharing your experience with us! Since I'm interested in doing humanitarian work in developing countries, it's nice to read how others manage everyday stress.


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