Let’s start by calling a rat a rat. And not a mouse.

The Year of the Mouse is certainly cuter, especially in Japan, a land where cute is king, the Book of Marketing is the national gospel, and the Disney rodent casts his “eary” shadow everywhere.

But I know my rats because I have a rather large one sitting across the table from me now. He is nibbling hungrily on a crust of bread. After having polished off most of the loaf.

Born in 1984, my second son is a rat in the Chinese zodiac, embraced by countries throughout all East Asia. So this is my son’s year.

“It’s about time I had a year,” he says. “I was due.”

That’s what’s great about the Chinese zodiac. It gives everyone their due every 12 years. Or, as my first son comments, every dog gets its day. And he should know. He’s a dog.

I don’t put much store in zodiacs of any nationality, but I admit I find the Chinese variety rather fun.

“According to what I’ve read,” I tell my son, “You rats tend to be eloquent but dictatorial. What’s your view on that?”

“Shut up and pass the butter. Now!”

I don’t mind doing this, of course, because I myself am an open-minded horse. So if you know your zodiac, you can now calculate my age. That’s right, I’m 42.

“But how can that be?” says my wife. “Aren’t you and I the same age?” She doesn’t get it, you see, because horses are also gullible.

As a Westerner, I find one way to get kicks out of this system is to teach uninformed relatives what animals they are.

“You,” I tell my older sister, the tough one, “are an ox.” The kick catches me in the shin.

But things go somewhat better with my other sisters, one of whom is a chicken and two of whom are sheep.

“Baah,” they say, twins of pessimism just like other sheep. Meanwhile, our mother — Ha! Ha! — is a monkey.

According to one legend, the leader of this menagerie is the rat, who, when ordained with the task of inviting other animals to join, somehow overlooked his buddy the cat, which is why cats and mice no longer get along. Following this logic, it would seem a bunch of other animals left out would also hate the rat, such as the hippo, the weasel, the turkey, the worm and so on. All of whom might have had their own year had not the rat been so selective.

But we horses get along with rats fine, even when they don’t pick up their room or wash their dishes.

I ask my son how he plans to spend his year.

“I dunno. Maybe sleep. Maybe eat. Maybe sleep and eat.”

With all this eating one might think he was a pig. Or even a brother horse. I toss him some cheesy questions.

“Why not get a job? That’d be a great way to highlight your year, wouldn’t it?”

He reminds me that very few people say, “Work like a rat.” Work like a horse or dog, yes. Like a rat, no.

My son the rat has perhaps earned an easy year. He has spent much of the last two in and out of hospitals, suffering from ulcerative colitis, the very same ailment that supposedly toppled Shinzo Abe from his prime minister’s office. 2007 clearly wasn’t Abe’s year, obviously, because he is a horse, just like me. Our year isn’t due until 2014. Maybe by then everyone will have forgotten his scandal-plagued administration and Abe can make a comeback.

“42?” says my wife.

Horses are also stubborn and never know when to put down a joke, even a bad one. I suppose that explains a lot about this column.

I ask my son, whose health — knock on wood — has gradually improved, what grander hopes he might have for his year. An end to the war perhaps? Some solid brakes on global warming? A glorious Olympics (in China no less)? An American election where the winner will be something finer than a rat? (Fun fact: Rudy Guiliani is a monkey!)

My son is too busy eating to give me a precise answer, but he mumbles something about perhaps getting a tattoo.

“Of a rat?”

He looks at me as if I were not a horse, but an ass.

“Stop bugging me,” he says. “It’s my year. I’ll do what I want.”

I suppose that’s only fair. We horses tend to be a bit glib and anxious. We’re always racing off at the mouth.

Yet, a year is a wonderful gift to have. Here’s hoping this one goes well for animals of all persuasions, not only rats.

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