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Signs and Symbols

Among the several quaint and curious volumes in my library is a book from 1963 titled Zodiac, comprising twelve signs engraved in wood by Sante Graziani with accompanying poems by Bertha Ten Eyck James. It’s doubtful that it spent any time on the New York Times’ list of best sellers, which makes it no less valuable to me.

I am drawn to the Zodiac, as I am to many quaint folkloric systems for insight to the human condition. Feng Shui is in that group, as is the I Ching, Bhagavad GitaTorah, Bible, Koran and Yellow Pages, in no particular order of precedence. I play no favorites. And while I do not guide my life exclusively by any of these literary works or divinational systems, I do appreciate their wisdom.

So, as a child of winter, I often look at what is said of Capricorn, the sign of my birth.


Graziani’s image is lush with goatly fur. But James’s poem reveals more about my sign than I had known:

Capricorn, one of the three earthly signs,

is feminine, nocturnal, melancholy.

Sign of ambition, since she rules the knee,

Which, straightening, brings man upright.

Also she rules: cowhouses, sheep pens, barren, fallow fields

And in the house low rooms and near to earth.

For me these are comfortable and comforting notions, ideas I can put on as appropriate or cast aside as useless folklore. As a city boy, I am content with livestock; shades of peaty brown define my wardrobe (such as it is), heights make me dizzy, and how can I be but melancholy in the featureless fields that stretch to my horizon. Cecil Elliott once described me thus: ” He grazes much but produces no wool.”

For the time being I choose to wear this poem.

PS: It is perhaps a sign of my Capricornishness that I just found a typo in the entry for Aquarius, which lacks a period at the end of the poem. My immediate reaction is to put it there.


yellow cross

There are episodes in Western history when the majority, perhaps suspicious of “others” among them, force non-comformants to wear labels. The yellow star in Nazi Germany identified Jews who might otherwise have passed unnoticed on the streets. Shops along those same streets announced “Juden” in their windows next to the baguette or chop or haberdashery they might otherwise have sold to an unsuspecting customer. Jews wore the yellow Star of David, as homosexuals, rapists and pederasts wore pink triangles; in concentration camps the complex code of single and double triangles in multiple colors identified the deviant, the miscreant, the scapegoat and allowed them to be codified, counted, above all controlled.

Nazis may have taken their cue from improved inquisitorial methods of Franciscan and Dominican orders during the 13th century. Religious heretics—Bogomils in eastern Europe, Waldensians in the Low Countries and Cathars in southern France—wore a yellow cross to distance and isolate them from the general population. In both situations—Nazi Germany and the Medieval Inquisition—labels were a certain path to impoverishment, imprisonment and death.

War has never been of any interest to me, especially the American Civil War and WWII. I can’t tell you why; perhaps it was the total lack of “What-did-you-do-in-the-war-daddy?” stories. The Cathar heresy, however—perhaps because it wasn’t a full-blown armed conflict—was the subject of The Yellow Cross, a history by Rene Weis, a book I read at least eight years ago, and The Good Men, a novel based on the same historic documents, published soon after. Is it easier to engage evil when it affects a handful of identified historical characters and more difficult in cases where the target is essentially faceless, a class or a caste or a category?

Student projects during the last five years have now and then brought evil to the surface in Agincourt. There was the Black man, falsely accused of rape. Convicted and then set free, he took revenge, not on the people involved, but on the courthouse where the trail took place. That fire in the spring of 1966 was the event linked to  Gordon Olschlager’s courthouse design in the 2007 exhibit. Oddly, the story followed the design, rather than preceding it. The evil, in this case, is comparatively faceless: the false accusation, the defendant’s jury of peers. As if…

I’ve imagined my share of deviance, but my less-than-admirable characters are merely eccentric. Consummate evil may exist in my world, so perhaps I’ve tried to insulate Agincourt.

What interests me today are the labels we willingly wear. The T-shirt, button, bumper sticker, yard sign or facebook posting that self-consciously links us with the Tea Party or atheism or the NRA or animal rights. I’ve made those choices, so how can I fault them in others.

The gift that goes on giving

Many of you who recall the 60s and 70s will recognize David Lance Goines, Bay Area graphic designer whose posters approached fine art. I invoked his name several entries ago in the context of poster at Agincourt. One of his most famous was for Chez Panisse, a renowned eatery in Berkeley. There is a framed Goines poster (mass-produced, unsigned, dammit) hanging in my bathroom advertising the Berkeley VD Clinic: The thorny stem of a rose morphs into a noose hanging above the phrase “Don’t give the gift that goes on giving.” Recent FaceBook conversations and other more personal encounters have lately brought the topic of charity to mind. Despite the recent economic downturn, the Agincourt I’ve imagined has experienced its fair share of giving—and taking.

Consider the Agincourt Public Library & Tennant Memorial Gallery, for instance, built through local benefaction, though I’ve defined neither the source nor the amount. The building’s dedication, I suppose, is indication enough that the Tennant family and its several branches played more than a little role. But surely there have been other instances of charitable giving in Agincourt’s century-and-a-half. There are social institutions, for example, like the “Y” and an animal shelter (“The Haven”) and social services galore—all jeopardized by the sequester and Tea Party budgets. Howard wrote some time ago about a WWI-era housing project and again on a recent community-based business incubator called “Home Grown” that helped Rosemary Plička open her restaurant.


When we give, our intentions are as varied as the causes and institutions we support—from God to Girl Scout cookies.

Nameplates and dedications hint at hubris, our need to live beyond the alloted four score and ten. [I’m not counting on that many, by the way.] For Howard’s family—the extended Tennant clan—noblesse oblige may also have played a part: success in business plowed back into the community that built it. What a silly outmoded notion. Lately I’ve had my own issues about giving: in two cases, overtures about donations have both been rebuffed. Frustration can become bitterness, though I’ll try not to let that happen.

Howard may have his own case studies in community history to share. I hope he calls me soon.