Groundhog Day

Broadcast in previous years on the very day in question.

February 2 is known in the United States as Groundhog Day. According to tradition, in the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, the groundhog – a midsized burrowing rodent named Phil – comes out of his burrow, looks around, and if he happens to see his shadow, it means there will be six more weeks of winter. He doesn’t see a shadow, it means an early spring. If you’d like to learn more about Groundhog Day and the official festival in Punxsutawney, you can check out the website www.groundhog.org.

The joke, of course, as far as meteorological prognostication is concerned, is that--shadow or not, in wintry parts of the world-- there are likely to be six more weeks of cold weather no matter what Phil the Groundhog sees. Six weeks from February 2 takes you to mid-March, about the time the first day of spring arrives anyway.

I grew up in the Northeast, and as a little kid I put great faith in Punxsutawney Phil – I didn’t get the joke. It doesn’t matter if spring is early or not – it’s still going to be absurdly cold; we might as well have a big party and laugh in winter’s face. Now I think it the holiday is just a bunch of Yankees finding a way to have their own ironic, one-day, understated version of Mardi Gras.

The absurdist joke of Groundhog Day was not lost on a guy named Danny Rubin, who wrote a screenplay, a script that, in 1993, was made into a movie directed by Harold Ramis and starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. You likely know the plot: A cynical weatherman is forced to live exact the same day of his life, February 2 in Punxsutawney, over and over again. He’s the only one aware of what’s going on, and although he can change his actions day-to-day, everything and everyone else is exactly the same. Each morning, February the Second unfolds just as it did before.

Bill Murray’s character, stuck in this time loop for decades, maybe centuries – we don’t really know how long – works through his arrogance, his insensitivity, his appetites, his hopelessness, and eventually figures out that the key to his happiness is simply accepting what he’s been given. Having done that, Murray’s character is able to transform himself from being a jerk to a genuinely good person. Bill Murray is likely the only actor with the ability to pull off the strange combination of detachment, sarcasm, and vulnerability needed for the movie to work. Groundhog Day has always seemed to me to be one of the overlooked great films of the 1990s, and is a very rare creature indeed – an existential comedy with a theological heart.

After all, despite our worries and hopes about the future and our guilt and pride in the past, all we really have is the present moment. This is the day that we are given – and for me, even though there are some variations in my routines, most of the time most things manage to stay the same. Really, I’m the one who makes the biggest difference in what sort of day I have – for better and for worse. I think that’s true for most people. And, day upon day, week upon week, month upon month, that’s how you build a life. You get to spring whether Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow or not. The joke is on you, every day – so you might as well lighten up and enjoy the moment. Right now. We have a long way to go.

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