The schoolteacher in the bright red blouse wasted no time explaining her problem. She and her daughter were Sagittarians, she said, her husband of 24 years was a Pisces, and her son was a Gemini.
Glancing about the room and pausing for dramatic emphasis, the teacher then asked her listeners why the children were so impossible to discipline, why "the Pisces" just didn't seem to care, and why she felt so darn fed up with all three of them.
"Well, I have a picture of Leo rising in your first house," replied Sandra Pullano, 44-year-old unofficial guru of the Clinton Astrological Association, who had put together a quick solar chart of the teacher's "energy field." "Your personality is probably in your fifth house. I see a lot of creativity and music there."
"Yes," the teacher said nodding, her eyes widening just a bit, "I do fool around with the piano."
"Your moon is definitely in Capricorn," Pullano went on, "which means you probably have a certain amount of rigidity you want to get rid of." The teacher smiled, still perched on the edge of her seat.
"But basically," Pullano concluded, "with Leo rising, you have this urge to take charge. It's vital for you to dominate your environment. As your kids get older you lose more and more control over that. You need immediate support from the person closest to you, your husband I guess, which I believe you aren't getting."
"Ha! You hit that square on the head. I get no help from the Pisces at all. None!" the teacher suddenly exclaimed, reeling back, throwing up her hands and slowly shaking her plump brown face from side to side as the room erupted in feminine chuckles and sympathetic glee.
The monthly meeting of the astrological association promised to be quite a knockout.
"We get together and shoot the breeze a lot, but we really believe that the stars and the planets do have an effect on human behavior," said Pullano, founder of this 10-year-old organization and a self-styled "professional psychological astrologer."
The association meets the first Monday of each month in a little brick room in the Marlow Heights Recreation Center, located on a hill behind a Pier One Imports store in central Prince George's County. Its membership includes a couple of dozen Washington area residents: an insurance saleswoman, one Girl Friday to a State Farm Insurance agent, a freelance photographer, a small business entrepreneur hoping to make a killing in automotive lubricants, a day care worker, homemakers.
They have varying degrees of expertise in discerning the psychic import of the heavens. Pullano, the master, has been studying astrology for 20 years, while the teacher with the Pisces husband has been dabbling in it for only a year or so.
But all of them share an unwavering faith that something cosmic is indeed going on, shaping the behavior of women and men from Marlow Heights to Angkor Wat. What was in the 1960s a counterculture fad that inspired pop tunes like "The Age of Aquarius" has now become, at least in Clinton, a kind of respectable suburban tool for self-help and emotional fitness.
It's also the center of a number of social lives that might otherwise be spent at bridge club parties or church club meetings. As Pullano put it, "We're good friends, not weirdos. We're artists, philosophers and scientists searching for truth."
Together, they sort out day-to-day problems at work and home, chart the movement of the stars, predict the future in their personal lives, toss about esoteric terms such as "red aura," "cyclic energy" and "destructive vibration," and develop "harmonic strategies" for coping with stress.
It's difficult for a newcomer to understand what they're talking about. Said Pullano at one point, "Astrology is an instrument you can use to feel secure in your individual self-hood." Everyone present seemed to understand the comment, nodding their heads gravely.
Pullano, a spry and cheerful woman with dark hair streaked with gray, said she first started to study astrology in 1962 when her husband died unexpectedly. She was left with seven children and found herself "angry all the time." She said she wanted to be able "to foresee" such shocks, so she took up astrology. She said she knew there was something to it when, looking over her chart once, she discovered there was something amiss "with my physical vehicle."
"That's means her body," said Sara Scott, a Leo.
So Pullano went to a doctor who put her into a hospital for three weeks. Tests revealed nothing wrong. "But I was so convinced I was going to die," Pullano said, "that I finally got a doctor to do exploratory surgery on me and guess what? When I came out of anesthesia he said if he hadn't done the surgery I would have died in six months." She said the doctor discovered a mass of tissue growing dangerously close to her heart.
"I had a major progress aspect in an area of my consciousness," Pullano went on. "A release of energy would have resulted in a transformation of my physical vehicle."
"That means she would've croaked," Scott, the Leo, translated.
Eventually Pullano grew expert enough to join the American Astrological Association, and founded the Clinton chapter soon thereafter, drawing both clients and association members from around the city and suburbs. Mellie Lalone, an insurance agent and a Pullano client for eight years, is now president of the association, which retains Clinton in its name despite the fact that most of its members reside elsewhere.
"I now feel a purpose in life," Lalone said. "I want to lecture and teach astrology." Lalone introduced Scott to astrology seven years ago.
"She picked me up at the airport one day and said, 'Sara, I've found the secret to the truth about life,' " Scott said. "When you hear something like that, you listen."
Pullano said she has advised "countless" people in the area, and currently keeps files on more than 20 clients, seeing three of them each day in her Clinton home at $50 an hour.
Last year, she said, she was flown to Greece by a former client who was assigned to an embassy there. "He trusted me," Pullano said. "He was a very ambitious guy and I advised him when and how to take advantage of certain circumstances. I helped him get his post over there.
"He wanted to introduce me to his friends. They turned out to be a number of Greek millionaires who wanted advice about their lives."
The August meeting of the Clinton association was billed as a question and answer period, and after the questions and answers were finished a birthday party began in honor of Sara Scott.
"Birthdays are very important according to the stars, you know," Scott said solemnly, as a cake iced with peanut butter frosting was carried into the room amid the strains of "Happy Birthday." Scott unwrapped several gifts, including a poster and a beautiful red flowing kaftan which she quickly slipped on. Then she opened the tiny box that Pullano presented her.
It contained a blue jeweled eye. "A Greek's eye of protection," Pullano explained. "All the Greeks have them on their worry beads."
Scott was truly ecstatic. She kissed Pullano on the cheek, attached the pendant to her silver necklace and promised to hold it dear to her heart. Then, as the 15 members present sipped coffee and ate pieces of the peanut butter cake, their informal discussion returned to the Sagittarius teacher and her Pisces husband, for everyone was curious to hear more.