Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Old Ox Plows a Straight Furrow

Six days after the inauguration—six days after Pastor Rick Warren, looking like a reupholstered Jerry Falwell, bestows his blessings on America and Barack Obama’s Presidency—the Chinese New Year begins.

It will be the Year of the Ox. Oxen, as you probably know, are castrated bulls.

Lacking a true gift for superstition, I assign little real importance to this fact. But as horoscopy goes, Chinese astrology has always served me better than the Western version. Under the latter, I am an Aries, therefore, stubborn, egoistic, combative, impulsive to the point of foolhardiness, all moral sense subjugated to raging lust. Fair enough. Under the former, I am a Snake, therefore, carnal, sensuous, intellectual, artistic, unforgiving with a preternaturally long memory for grudges. Bull’s eye.

The United States is in deeper debt to China—$585 billion—than to any other nation, only another reason to believe our collective futures lie in Chinese hands. So let me peer into my weathered, brittle paperbound edition of Theodora Lau’s The Handbook of Chinese Horoscopes, copyright 1980, to see what the new year holds in store.

Lau opens her section on The Year of the Ox with the statement: “We will feel the yoke of responsibility coming down on us this year.” Okay, so after 2008, we could all see this one coming, though Lau pegged it 28 years ago. She follows with “The trials and tribulations the Ox year brings will be mainly on the home front. It is a good time to settle domestic affairs and put your house in order.” Henry Paulson should only have been this prescient.

After stating that the Ox views politics and diplomacy, along with frivolities of every sort, with indifference, Lau begins to sound like my dad: “No work, no pay! … The Spartan influence of the Ox will be a constantly cracking whip over our heads. [T]he year of the Ox favors discipline. … This is no time for tricky shortcuts.”

Just so I get her point, Lau aims a closing shot directly at me: “For the rebels, it may be worthwhile to point out that although the stoical Ox is soft-spoken, he carries a big stick, and this is his year.”

In particular, the year 2009 will be the year of the “Earth” Ox—not a nod to environmentalism, though no doubt cleaning up the mess we’ve made of the planet is part of the work cut out for us. The Earth Ox favors duty over creativity, practicality over idealism, stability over progress, sense over sensibility, endurance over complaint, and determination over cynicism.

On a happier note, children born next year can be expected to whine less (“This child will not be a crybaby”), value privacy more, and exhibit patience, perseverance, and responsibility. Ox-people thrive on discipline and order (Richard Nixon, the Emperor Hirohito and Adolf Hitler were all Ox-people, but, happily, so were Walt Disney, Vincent Van Gogh, and Charlie Chaplin).

Astrology aside, it seems clear to me that we have work to do in the coming year. Given the work’s immense importance—to our pocketbooks, to peace, to justice, to life, to the preservation of what it means to be human—it’s important that we look at the tasks ahead with all the optimism we can humanly muster. We must persevere to survive.

We must not panic, and we must contain our worries and sense of dread. We need to gain or regain a sense of the common good—set aside our private interests, if necessary, even perhaps our high ideals (at least the ones so high we can’t actually see the tops of)—and pitch in to make things better than they are.

Even without lunar insights, I can pretty well assure you that we will not entirely solve the mess we’re in—and are about to slip into deeper—even with God’s and Obama’s help. But we can take a point or two from the stoical Ox, and whine and moan a little less, however Mad Max the world becomes, and temper the cynicism we’ve so carefully cultivated since our freshmen years at college with a little kindness and humane understanding.

One certainty I subscribe to, which all forms of astrology support: Things will change.

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