On the good life led by Punxsutawney Phil and my jealousy of said life
It’s February 3rd and it is cold. It will be cold for another five weeks and six days because yesterday it was decided so. It was not a meteorologist or a scientist of any kind who deemed the following six weeks to be extensions of winter. It was neither a god nor a powerful spirit of some kind. It was not Jack Frost.
Yesterday it was a rodent, Latin name Marmota monax, English name groundhog, which is basically a water-less beaver, that extended our already-chilly winter. He did not (and we know it is a “he” for sure — feel free to check for yourself) have to say, “Yup! Six weeks more!” All he had to do was see his shadow, give a few nervous twitters, and scramble into the darkness from whence he came. What a life my friend, Phil, the mascot of the tiny town of Punxsutawney, leads.
I imagine a similar life for myself and things start to seem quite nice. I spend all of late October and the following months, up until the first day of February, sleeping in a hole in the ground. Sometimes I have a bad dream, so I munch on some acorns. The repetitive mastication calms me. I set my alarm for February 1st so I can have a day to shower, shine my shoes, buy a nice business-casual sweater — just in case I do not see my shadow the next day, I want to be ready for an early spring. I get up early on the 2nd to head to Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf and, lo and behold, there’s a horrifying gray figure tracking my every move just above the ground. That’s it; I’m out. See you on March 21st.
Watching Harold Ramis’s now-classic film Groundhog Day (1993) makes it easy to associate oneself with the groundhog, also known as a woodchuck, also known as a whistle pig. In Ramis’s screenplay (cowritten with Danny Rubin), Punxsutawney Phil does not live in the ground, does not see his shadow, does not do much at all except get manhandled by the Punxsutawney Mayor. The mayor insists Phil spoke to him in groundhogese and declared the extension of winter. Phil does not return to a hole, but rather to a cozy-looking wood nest built for him by the townspeople. He can talk. He lives in a civilized location. He has a human name. And, when he is kidnapped by a weatherman of the same name, played by the legendary Bill Murray, he drives a truck.
Murray’s character, Phil, experiences February 2nd over and over again through some strange cosmic connection to the rodent. Watching the movie again a few weeks ago (it was in my local library and I had not seen it since I was a child), I felt pangs of jealousy towards the weatherman. At first he becomes upset that he has to redo the day over and over because he lives in Pittsburgh and prefers not to be stuck in godforsaken Punxsutawney. But I instantly recognized the appeal of the smaller town when he entered it, with its greasy spoons, its non-denominational communal spirit, and its pleasant bed-and-breakfasts. Over the span of film time — which covers something like 50 recurring days — Ramis and Murray convert Phil into a lover of the small-town feeling. He loves it so much that, after attempting suicide five times, and murdering the innocent groundhog, he chooses to live in Punxsutawney. His happy ending is buying the local B&B.
Last year, I took a drive tour of the North Island of New Zealand, a country of four million residents. The nation’s entire population is much less than half the population of the state of Pennsylvania. Greasy spoons, small-town feeling, and community spirit are the dominant norms in the towns of Whakatane, Napier, and Wairoa. People come out for parades and celebrate non-holidays just for the sake of celebration. The New Zealanders that do not own farms like to make arts and crafts, like blown glass, art deco sculptures, funky wool scarves. Most milk is not pasteurized or homogenized. The bed-and-breakfasts all included heated floors, heated towel racks, and electric blankets. Things are simple, and they are beautiful.
But when you get a taste of a life that you don’t live, you tend to want more of it, especially if the trip is short. This is why the generations after the Baby Boom feel so comfortable picking up and leaving ennui-filled suburbia. The advent of planes, trains, and rental automobiles has made it so that I can leave Los Angeles for New Zealand and spend a month driving through sheep pastures and sleeping in kiwi orchards. Life disallowed me the opportunity to buy property in Wellington, and I would not have had enough money to survive the month.
I did not have the security, the support of my loved ones, or the mystical powers of a groundhog necessary to just remain in New Zealand. Unlike Bill Murray, I don’t have an Andie MacDowell willing to quit her job at Pittsburgh 9 just to live in a cozy, pleasant, noncompetitive place far from the trappings of inner-city life. I don’t even have a fear of my shadow. Few of us do. But in both Phils, the protagonist and the namesake of Groundhog Day, I see a man who would have hated New Zealand at first, and then loved it enough to move there. I see a groundhog whose Zen attitude could alleviate the sadness I feel not seeing the Wellington sea every morning as I wake up. And I see a small movie-town I wish looked exactly that way.