Astrology, Part 2 – Skepticism Reasserts Itself

Using only the date, location, and exact time of my birth, Marvin said a great deal about me. And the computer printout from which he was working certainly looked more scientific than the wet clumps of coffee grounds from which Sascha gleaned his insights. Maybe there was something to this oft-ridiculed field, after all.

My relatives spent a lot of money on the education that made me skeptical, though, and I didn’t want to give it all up for a trick. It was true that Marvin knew even less about me when he said his piece than Sascha had – Sascha, after all, could have talked with his nephew about me, whereas Marvin had no apparent ties to the particulars of my life. Who knew, though – he could have made a few sly inquiries. He’s a journalist, after all. It would have been fairly easy for him to find my resume. With that in hand, he could have called a few folks and guessed the rest.

As with Sascha, though, I could see no motive for subterfuge. For one thing, neither of them charged me a dime. They asked only for my attention, and had been generous with their time. I supposed it was possible they wanted to convince me and others that they had special powers, simply to gain more respect, but they seemed sincere. The likeliest explanation seemed to be the simplest: They thought I was a decent person, and they enjoyed exercising their unusual skills for me, the way I might enjoy telling them a long story.

Astrology seemed a little more testable than coffee grounds. I figured the ability to read coffee grounds might be a non-transferable gift, like 20/10 vision. Anyone, though, could learn to read a computer printout.

Buying the future?

Marvin gave me the phone number of the San Diego company that printed my star chart for him. One day I called the company and requested a catalogue. Among the items offered was a “solar return” for various months in one’s life. That looked promising.

I called the company and requested such a “solar return” for three months that I had already lived through, six years earlier: June, July and November of 1984.

June of that year was the last truly peaceful month of my life, in the sense that it was the last month in which death seemed unreal. In early July, my father drowned and my sisters nearly went down with him. By November, the shock of losing my dad had worn clean through, and a blanket of deep, gray depression covered most of my life.

If there was anything to astrology at all, a reading for my life during these months should show some serious contrasts.

As I waited for the solar return to arrive in the mail, I felt unusually paranoid. I wondered if the company might look up my name on some database somewhere, in order to figure out what these months meant to me.

Inwardly I already began to feel the rage I knew I would feel in full if I were to learn that the company had, indeed, done this sort of spying in order to dupe me. “How dare they toy with people’s emotions in this way,” I got ready to say, “just to get us to believe in their foolish system and pay for other so-called ‘analyses.’”

I needn’t have worried. The ‘solar return,’ whatever it was, bore no correlation whatever to my life during the designated months. Various days in June, 1984, it said, provided good opportunities for me to indulge my hedonistic side. Likewise on the days before, during and after my father died, and likewise again in November. There was no discernible difference between the months. I hid the analysis under some old papers, ashamed of myself for paying $12, plus hope and anxiety, for such a worthless thing.

I didn’t want to talk about astrology for a little while after that. I tested it and it failed. I went on with my life, working at a bookstore near Harvard Square, dating a woman I’d met through a classified ad, wondering about the meaning of life and pain as I walked home from the store late in the evenings through the tree-lined, overly serious law school campus. Eating chocolate-chip cookies, drinking herbal tea, I quietly said to those gray stone buildings and the students and faculty they housed, “Don’t you see – none of your ambition will matter in the end. All that you make yourself into – all of it will rot and turn to dust.” As far as I could tell, no one heard me. That’s how quiet I was.

Silence broken

Then one sunny afternoon, one of my housemates almost asked a woman out to dinner. He really liked her, and had been building up to this for weeks. Now the two of them were laughing together as they walked to lunch, and he was just about to pop the question when she mentioned a boyfriend.

Crushed, he left work early. I happened to be home that afternoon, and I calmed him down as best I could. I told him it was no reflection on him that she’d started seeing someone before she met him. But he had built a scenario in his mind, one that had shown him that they were right for each other. The loss of that illusion hurt him deeply. Before the month was out he moved back home to Ohio.

He left behind a tattered blue paperback called “Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs” by Linda Goodman. One day I noticed it lying on the kitchen counter, and picked it up. The author, depicted in a black-and-white photo on the back, was cute. I had never heard of her or the book, but its publisher claimed “Over 4,000,000 copies in print.” That seemed like a lot.

Goodman’s style was fluid, confident and warm. Her descriptions of stubborn Tauruses and flighty Geminis were gentle teases. I read my own sign’s description, grunted a few times, and decided that it was too general to mean anything. But her writing flowed so easily that I found myself idly reading the descriptions of other signs, too, the way you might watch a river go by just for the motion of the water, without expecting to see anything unusual.

Then I read the description of the Scorpio man: “No matter how his emotions are stirred, you’ll rarely see them reflected on Scorpio’s frozen, immobile face. These people proudly and consciously practice a blank expression. They command their features to remain firm, and their features obey. … [But] just behind his frosty reserve is a huge pot of boiling steam that bubbles and seethes continually.”

That was my father. I had never understood him, and rarely tried to describe him. But Linda Goodman had described him to a ‘T’ – all by describing the twelfth of the calendar during which he had been born.

I found out my mother’s sign – Aquarius – and flipped to that section. Again I was struck. The detachment, the egalitarian ability to find the mailman as fascinating as the President of the United States, the curiosity – all those things were integral to my mom. And the inability to follow directions: “She can’t stick to the recipe when she bakes one of her angel food cakes anymore than she can park the car exactly where you tell her to. There’s some kind of snag in her thinking that causes her to believe just a little twist will improve anything. There’s a constant urge to experiment with a different way to make the coffee, fill her pen, fasten her ice skates and cross the street.”

That was my mom. When I was a young boy she got excited about spinach pie, even though no one in the house really liked spinach. She made ten different kinds of spinach pie. I was the only one who tried each one. Whether I liked a particular variety or not didn’t matter, though – I was never to see the same one again. She later took the same approach to rice pudding.

Her three sisters grew up in the same Irish-Catholic house, but each of them is more conventional than my mom will ever be. Could some of the difference have to do with their birthdays?

I had tried to understand my parents using conventional psychological means. My father was just 17 when he lost his father to a sudden heart attack, and I had wondered if that loss could explain his seriousness. Yet I lost him when I was 16, and my loss has not made me into his clone. I knew a fair amount about the turmoil in which my mother had grown up. That history began to seem irrelevant, though, when I read Goodman’s description of Aquarius.

Still skeptical

A description that seems overly general when it’s applied to you can seem very specific when it’s applied to someone else. By and by it occurred to me that most people probably do with astrology what I had done – read the description of their own sign, and decide that some of it applies and some of it doesn’t. Satisfied that it’s a mishmash, they move on, without ever studying the signs of people other than themselves.

We think we know ourselves well enough to judge whether a particular description applies to us. But do we? It’s much easier for most of us, still, to see the speck of dust in our neighbor’s eye than the two-by-four in our own.

I started to read the book more seriously, comparing the descriptions to the lives of people I knew. Again and again it rang true.

It got better. I met people whose mannerisms reminded me of relatives or close friends. I knew the sign of the relative, but not of this new acquaintance. Using the commutative principle, I figured this new person’s sign might be the same as the sign of the person I knew.

“Are you a Virgo?” I would ask. The look on their face was a thrill: “Why, yes, I am,” they would say. “How did you know?”

“I didn’t,” I would say, and I’d smile. I wasn’t just playing a cocktail game – I was learning about a form of order I had never expected. Our personalities were not random at all.

Of course, nothing makes you look foolish more quickly than trying to guess a stranger’s sign – and missing. And my guesses were not always accurate. The look on my new acquaintances’ faces, when I was wrong, was nearly enough to stop me altogether. “But you seemed so bright,” it seemed to say.

But the guesses were accurate far more often than they should have been, given the 12-to-1 odds. And sometimes they didn’t feel like guesses at all. A person’s manner would seem so similar to a cousin of mine, say, that I would feel certain. And I’d be right. After a while, I stopped trying to guess. I had satisfied my curiosity. I saw that if I really wanted to get good at guessing signs, I could.

I came to believe that solar returns are of little help, but their failure does not negate the entire field. The predictive aspects of astrology still elude me. But the characterological stuff – that stuff works.

Shopping in the scorn department

Becoming a believer meant visiting a part of the bookstore on which I had long looked with scorn. Hiding the covers of the astrology books I was flipping through, I struck the same pose that I had taken as a teenage boy looking for pictures of naked women. Just as I had been doing then, I was studying a truth of which society officially disapproved.

It was in one of those bookstore sections, in Albuquerque, that I opened a book written for women – a book on how to find and seduce a man with a compatible sign. It’s often interesting to learn how women look at mating. More to the point, though, I wanted to see what advice this author would give to a female Pisces about male Tauruses.

You see, Judy is a Pisces. Even though we had been apart for years, and I had moved two thousand miles away and had dated two women seriously since then, I couldn’t quite get her out of my mind.

And that’s what the book said. More to the point, it said, “When the Taurus man meets the Pisces woman, he thinks she’s a dream come true. It works well for her, too, at first. Gradually, though, his temper hurts her more delicate sensibilities, and she swims away. And now the trouble begins, because he can’t let her go.”

“Avoid at all costs,” it warned the Pisces female.

Reading it, all those miles and years and partners away from Judy, I felt terrible. What I had seen as the love of my life was reduced to a few lines in a book – a few lines that made me look, well, bad.

As with the coffee grounds, so with astrology: The loss of Judy had opened my stubborn eyes.

Originally published by The Guy Code, May 3, 2001. 

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