THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Joanna Weiss

Identity crisis

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / January 15, 2011

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WHEN I first heard the news that the zodiac had changed, the first thing I did was check the dates to see if my 2-year-old son was still a Scorpio. That’s been my blanket explanation for why he’s been stubborn since roughly minute one, and often gives me a no-I-don’t-think-so look that I’ve dubbed his “Scorpio face.’’ If he’s suddenly a Libra, then who can I blame?

So, yes, I took part in the collective identity crisis this week when the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported that we’ve been reading the stars all wrong. According to the Minnesota Planetarium Society, the Earth has changed its tilt as it revolves around the sun, due to the moon’s gravitational pull, and its axis doesn’t point where it did 3,000 years ago when the Babylonians mapped the sky. Plus, the Babylonians hated the number 13, and thus had excised a sign called Ophiuchus, depicted as a man who cuts a serpent in half. The Minnesotans want him reinstated.

So if your birthday lies between Nov. 29 and Dec. 17, they say, go slice a snake. Everyone else can dial back their signs by roughly a month. Oh — and Scorpio lasts a mere six days, proof that even the heavens know how tough little Scorps are when they’re toddlers.

Word of these pronouncements spread at the speed of Twitter, and the masses went nuts: “My whole life up to this point has been a lie,’’ someone cracked. Most of the fury was tongue-in-cheek, but there was no mistaking how jarring this felt, even to people who pride themselves in mostly rational thought. There’s something about the zodiac that’s irresistible; I have no patience for crystals and auras, and I don’t read my horoscope unless I have a really long ride on the T, but I’m deeply familiar with my sign, and have had long, wine-drenched conversations with non-New-Agey friends about what happens when a Taurus marries an Aries.

We’re always trying to figure out who we are, and a sign feels like workable shorthand, a reasonable approximation, and who cares if the qualities don’t precisely fit? I grew up thinking I was a Leo on the Virgo cusp, and the “experts’’ say that makes me optimistic (yes), social (yes), ambitious (kind of), workaholic (sure), decisive (not really), vain (guilty), logical (seldom), and highly organized (ha). To be honest, I’d probably have the same track record with Aquarius. And yet I still get a little gasp of recognition when I read the supposed descriptions of myself.

That’s the beauty of astrology: It’s vague enough that you can mold any sign to fit your personality — or the personality you’d like to think you have. Plenty of signs apparently make people stubborn, loving, difficult, and sensitive, and who among us isn’t? We’re like the fortune tellers who make such generalized guesses that we can’t help being right: “I sense that you’ve come here because you’re trying to make a big decision.’’

So now what? Will people suddenly think of themselves differently, and act accordingly? Will kids grow up changed, as they home in on the traits outlined on some astrology website? My 6-year-old, born in mid-July, was never thrilled about being a crab (especially when I told her that this didn’t give her free license to pinch me), so now we can study up on Gemini. My husband has switched from Capricorn to Sagittarius, which suddenly explains why he’s so grumpy doing dishes. But I’m still not any closer to figuring him out.

And as it turns out, these new signs might not help, either. Astrologers are fighting back with counter-PR, saying they knew about this moon-pulling business all along. They say it’s irrelevant, because Westerners follow the “tropical zodiac,’’ as opposed to the “sidereal zodiac,’’ and something about the constellations and the vernal equinox.

We “rational’’ astrology followers can’t be bothered with the details; it’s not like we really believe in this stuff, except for when we do, and at any rate, it’s Greek to us. Still, the swift debunking came as a relief, since it made me think I knew my son again. He just gave me another Scorpio face when I offered him a banana, and I’m positive a Libra would never do that.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.