Each year on February 2nd, some people in the US celebrate a little-known holiday called Groundhog Day. As the tradition goes, the future (short-term) weather can be predicted by the behavior of a groundhog called Punxsutawney Phil. On this date in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, the groundhog (also called a “woodchuck”) comes out of his hole and takes a look around on a rise of ground called Gobbler’s Knob. If he sees his shadow, it is a portent that there will be six more weeks of winter.

This tradition has never made sense to me even though I am quite ready to believe that nature’s creatures can predict forthcoming events. In 1989, on the day before the disastrous Loma Prieta Earthquake in California, I saw four tarantulas scuttling across the dirt road next to my house, climbing up the hill as if they were being pursued. I had never even seen a tarantula in the neighborhood before that moment, let alone four of them at once. I’m convinced that those huge, hairy-looking spiders were trying to get to higher ground because they knew that a 6.9-magnitude earthquake was about to shake the central coast of California.

What I don’t understand about the groundhog’s behavior is why seeing his shadow would predict six more weeks of winter. If it is sunny enough for Phil to have a shadow, wouldn’t that suggest that spring is on the way?

In fact, I suspect that Phil is a bit of a fraud. The average temperatures in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania in early February are highs of 37 degrees F (2.78 degrees C) and lows of 17 degrees F (-8.33 degrees C). I expect Phil just wants to head back to his warm bed and snuggle up with a good book, whether he sees his shadow or not. (At least that is what I often want to do on these chilly February mornings.)

According to the website Live Science, this tradition has been going on for 120 years, and that Phil is not really very good at his job. His predictions have been correct only about 39% of the time. In approximately three weeks, we will be able to tell how accurate he’s been in 2021. Personally, I don’t think Phil’s behavior has much predictive validity, to use a term from language assessment.

What was a bit unusual for me on this most recent Groundhog’s Day was that I actually watched the 1993 movie by that name for the first time. Starring Bill Murray and Andie McDowell, Groundhog Day is the story of an egocentric TV weatherman who is sent to report on Punxsutawney Phil’s prediction. Murray’s character is a rude, thoughtless, self-centered person who deeply resents having to go to Punxsutawney to witness the groundhog’s behavior. On February 2nd, he has a rough start to his day: It’s cold, he narrowly avoids a beggar, he meets an acquaintance he doesn’t want to talk to, he steps in an icy puddle, and the place is crawling with local officials in top hats as well as many tourists who have come to see Punxsutawney Phil. To add to the confusion, Murray’s character is also named Phil (Phil Connors).

In fact, the entire day goes very badly and the plot thickens the next morning when Phil (the reporter – not the groundhog) wakes up to find the day repeating itself: Events, conversations, and accidents (such as stepping into the puddle of icy water on the way to Gobbler’s Knob) all unwind in disconcerting repetition.

Even the song that plays on the clock radio to wake Phil up (the weather reporter, not the groundhog) repeats every morning at 6 AM. (By the end of the movie, if you don’t already dislike the song, you will have had quite enough of Sonny and Cher’s 1965 hit tune, “I Got You Babe.”) Gradually, Phil realizes that he is caught in a time loop and cannot get out. The day repeats itself endlessly as he tries to change the outcome – even committing suicide in a variety of ways, only to awaken again the next day to the tedious sounds of Sonny and Cher. For a full one hour and forty-one minutes, viewers relive Groundhog Day over and over again with Phil (the reporter) as he tries to break out of the loop.

We’ll come back to Phil in a moment, but watching this movie got me thinking about the time loop as a narrative device. According to Wikipedia, “a time loop or temporal loop is a plot device in fiction whereby characters re-experience a span of time which is repeated, sometimes more than once, with some hope of breaking out of the cycle of repetition.” Furthermore, “time loops are constantly resetting: When a certain condition is met, … the loop starts again, with one or more characters retaining the memories from the previous loop.”

As I thought about the concept of a particular chunk of time repeating itself endlessly, I realized that this technique is often used in films. These movies include the Tom Cruise adventure, Edge of Tomorrow; Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves romance, The Lake House; and the beautiful and sad story of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, based on the book by Ransom Riggs. At least two episodes of the television program, Star Trek – The Next Generation use the time loop as well: Cause and Effect and Time Squared.

I sometimes feel like I myself am in a time loop. I expect we have all had the feeling of déjà vu, which Dictionary.com defines as “the illusion of having previously experienced something actually being encountered for the first time.” But that feeling is different. In a time loop, the characters are actually caught in a seemingly endless cycle of repetition, and must somehow figure out how to escape.

A few nights ago, I felt like I was in a time loop myself. I had been writing for an hour and a half, trying to complete the annual self-assessment process used by my school. The report is due on March 1st. I was working on an unfamiliar website rather than in a Word doc, and I erroneously assumed that the system was doing an auto-save process. Of course, I lost the entire report when I was proofreading what I’d written. That experience alone was frustrating enough, but then I remembered I’d done something similar last year in filling out the same required form.

And even though the content changes, during the last week of every month, I agonize over the Chair’s Report for TIRF Today, and it’s always the same struggle. How can I write something fresh, something interesting, that will encourage our readers to support TIRF? And at right about this point in the Chair’s Report each month, I write something like, “You may be wondering what these ideas have to do with TIRF.”

This month, I went back to the collection of newsletters on the Foundation’s website and reread the Chair’s Report in every February issue since 2011. (TIRF’s newsletter was first produced in September of 2010). Here’s what I wrote about in those February issues:

  • 2011: TIRF’s Panel Presentation at the upcoming TESOL Convention in New Orleans
  • 2012: A Leap Day Proposal (re: fundraising)
  • 2013: The TIRF Presentation at the upcoming TESOL Convention in Dallas
  • 2014: TIRF’s Presentation at the upcoming TESOL Convention in Portland
  • 2015: Connections, Collaboration, and Community
  • 2016: A Leap Year Proposal (re: fundraising)
  • 2017: Valentine’s Day and Long-lasting Giving (re: fundraising)
  • 2018: TIRF and the Olympics
  • 2019: Taking Steps and Taking Risks (re: fundraising)
  • 2020: You Don’t Know What You’ve Got ‘til it’s Gone

As you can see, there are repeated themes here. I was surprised to learn that I had written about Leap Year twice and that the two articles are quite similar!

In spite of the various themes, each of these Chair’s Reports included a plea that readers would support TIRF, and so does this one. Can I tie this concept to Groundhog Day? Maybe.

But first, let me return to Phil’s predicament (the weather reporter’s – not the groundhog’s). He gradually learns to change his own behavior and his attitude. He evolves into a kinder, more thoughtful person, and in the process, he becomes a more lovable and worthy human being. Though I won’t tell you how the movie ends, I will tell you that in one very funny chase scene, Phil (the reporter) steals a truck with Phil (the groundhog) in it, and together they drive off a cliff and land in a fiery crash below. But don’t worry – the next morning at 6 AM, viewers are treated once again to the less-than-dulcet tones of Sonny and Cher.

What is the moral of the story? How does this movie (and other tales involving time loops) relate to TIRF and fundraising? My recollection of the films and TV episodes I mentioned above is that in every case, the characters must learn and grow, they must change their behavior and their attitudes, in order to escape the time loop. (When I finish drafting this Chair’s Report, I will go back and start my annual self-assessment report again, this time pausing regularly to save the emerging document.)

We cannot predict, whether or not we all see our shadows, the future of TIRF. What we do know is that without financial stability, the Foundation will flounder. Along with Ryan Damerow, our Chief Operating Officer, the other TIRF Trustees and I have been working to expand TIRF’s revenue streams. We are developing initiatives that will provide more funding to sustain and develop the Foundation’s programs. This year, we anticipate sharing details about our new initiatives, some of which have already begun to add to TIRF’s bottom line.

If you feel like my repeated Chair’s Report pleas asking for financial support function a bit like TIRF’s Groundhog Day, I would understand your feelings. After all, the Foundation made an extended fundraising push during the end of 2020 – it was just a short two months ago when the drive ended! (Out collective efforts proved to be fruitful for the Foundation, thanks to readers like you.)

As fundraising is an ongoing need for nonprofit organizations like TIRF, I hope you’ll understand the reasons behind what may seem like my time-looped requests for your support. Whether it’s this week, next month, or near the end of the year, I hope you will consider making a donation to TIRF. As always, thank you for your continued support. Now, I’m going to get back to writing that self-assessment….

Best wishes,