Make a Nice Day!

ELLEN GOODMAN

March 19, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- Somewhere in the middle of ''Groundhog Day,'' Bill Murray turns to the man sitting beside him at a bar and says in a voice of utter despair, ''What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was the same and nothing mattered?''

This is the philosophy of life that the rather obnoxious and egocentric weatherman has brought to this delicious time-warp fantasy. Murray has gotten stuck, truly stuck, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where he went to cover the February 2 festivities.

For this weatherman, there is literally no tomorrow. Or, to be more precise, tomorrow is another today. He wakes up the next morning to the same morning, and he's the only one who knows it. Moreover, he is doomed to relive the day until he gets it right.

To the jaded moviegoer, ''Groundhog Day'' may well be to February 2 what ''It's a Wonderful Life'' is to December 25. It presents the possibility of human renewal -- only this time with a sense of humor.

To the jaded female, it also presents the possibility that even a self-centered cad can eventually get it. Given time enough, Andie MacDowell, and a dozen slaps across the face, any man is educable. After endless reruns of the skirmish of the sexes, this one becomes, uh, sensitive.

But sitting in my popcorn perch, I'm willing to bet that the appeal of this hit movie comes less from the fantasy it evokes than from its echoes of real life. Especially real life at midlife.

What would you do if you woke up in the same place and every day was the same?

For most people, middle age is a little bit like that. It's long past the time of life when most of us were building our careers, beginning our families and nesting. It's the maintenance stage when an extraordinary amount of energy is going to upkeep -- keeping up the commitments you have. One morning inevitably looks a lot like the one before it.

Of course, the time-warp stories that make it to the silver screen are usually about some young person yearning to get back to the future. Or about mad scientists trying to jump into an entirely different dimension.

The daydreams of youth that Hollywood usually respects are about breaking away. The daydreams of middle age that get screenplays are most often centered on starting over.

Books also tend to divide the adult life cycle into dramatic passages. We are regaled with theories that show us facing a dead end, following an exit sign out of the old rut and choosing a new beginning. The words midlife and crisis are joined at the (expanding) hip.

But in real life, those of us who do not want to start over in the middle face a very different test of renewal. Daily renewal. Getting up in the same place, doing the same things -- only making it matter.

Most of us don't want to throw everything over and go to live in Tahiti with the tennis pro. We don't want to have a post-menopausal baby or a second career in brain surgery. So we have to figure out how to make the best of what we have.

Making the best of what we have, I might add, is not second best. It's not the siren call of a midlife depression inviting us to settle. It is, rather, a demand for active engagement in caring for what and whom we value.

That is what's touching about ''Groundhog Day.'' Our trapped weatherman has to learn this the hard way. His life is reduced to one inescapable day. It's the entire deck he's been dealt, the allotment of flowers he can arrange, the whole cast of characters in his life.

He goes through stages of feeling trapped, depressed, and living as if there's no tomorrow. He finally comes to the NTC not-so-profound-but-still-pretty-rare realization that he can change his world by changing himself. That there's a lot of learning that goes into perfecting one day.

If this movie were a Zen lesson, it would be about living in the now. If this were a 12-step program, the moral would be one day at a time. If it were an environmental poster it would read: Think global, act local.

But as a prescription for midlife when the outlines of our lives are pretty clear, it's about making the best of what you have . . . over and over. Making small repairs and improvements so that the commitments of midlife -- the work you do and people you love -- don't become a trap. They become and remain the town in which you choose to live even when you have options.

If that sounds hopelessly sappy, well, blame it on the movies. But after watching Mr. Murray, I will never tell you to have a nice day. How about making a few, nicer, days.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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