Nov. 13, 2006


by Ron Koertge

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Poem: "Kryptonite" by Ron Koertge, from Fever. © Red Hen Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


Lois liked to see the bullets bounce
off Superman's chest, and of course
she was proud when he leaned into
a locomotive and saved the crippled
orphan who had fallen on the tracks.

Yet on those long nights when he was
readjusting longitude or destroying
a meteor headed right for some nun,
Lois considered carrying just a smidgen
of kryptonite in her purse or at least
making a tincture to dab behind her ears.

She pictured his knees giving way,
the color draining from his cheeks.
He'd lie on the couch like a guy with
the flu, too weak to paint the front
porch or take out the garbage. She
could peek down his tights or draw
on his cheek with a ball point. She
might even muss his hair and slap
him around.

"Hey, what'd I do?" he'd croak just
like a regular boyfriend. At last.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the man who wrote the first great tell-all memoir: Saint Augustine, (books by this author) born in Tagaste, Numidia (354), a part of North Africa that is now Algeria. Though his mother was a Christian, and he'd grown up in the Christian Roman Empire, he'd spent much of his life dabbling in various pagan religions. He was living with a lower-class woman, having fathered a child out of wedlock, when he fell under the influence of Bishop Ambrose of Milan and suddenly converted to Christianity. He decided that he would abandon his secular life and devote himself to writing about Christian theology.

He was an extraordinarily prolific writer, publishing more than 90 books in his lifetime. But though he was widely read, he wasn't taken very seriously by other theologians. He couldn't read or write in Greek, which was the language of intellectuals, and he lived in a backwater part of the Roman Empire. His critics called him a "donkey protector," and said, "[He is] what passes for a philosopher with Africans."

Living on the edge of the empire, he was surrounded by renegade forms of Christianity. People who considered themselves Christians were also worshiping idols and consulting with fortune tellers. All these pagan influences were contributing to a huge diversity in Christian beliefs. Augustine became a famous theologian in part because he spoke out against this diversity, arguing that all Christian churches should follow the doctrine of the central church in Rome.

Augustine especially attacked the group of Christians known as Donatists, who believed that the only true Christians were those people who lived their lives completely free from sin. Augustine argued that no one could possibly be free from sin, because sinfulness is in the very nature of humans. He developed the idea of original sin, saying that all humans are born sinful because all humans are descended from Adam and Eve who committed the first sin.

Augustine used himself as an example of imperfection by writing The Confessions (c. 400), one of the first memoirs of Western literature. In that book, he described all the sins he had ever committed in the years of his life before his conversion, everything from crying over a fictional character in a poem, to stealing pears from a neighbor's tree, to his sexual fantasies and exploits.

In the last years of his life, Augustine was witnessing the fall of the Roman Empire. The city of Rome had already been captured by barbarians once, and Augustine's own city of Hippo was besieged by vandals. After his death, the city of Hippo was destroyed by the barbarians, but somehow Augustine's library survived. He'd spent his life defending Christianity against pagan influence, and his work went on to hold the Christian Church together throughout the medieval era. It is partially due to his writings that the Catholic Church did not break up into separate churches for almost a thousand years.

It's the birthday of Robert Louis Stevenson, (books by this author) born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1850). He began to suffer from a lung disease at a very early age. His nurse stayed up with him at night when he couldn't sleep and told him all kinds of stories about ghosts and monsters and pirates. He said, "My recollections of the long nights when I was kept awake by coughing are only relieved by thoughts of the tenderness of my nurse."

It's the birthday of the lawyer and associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Louis Brandeis, born in Louisville, Kentucky (1856). He was the man who introduced the concept of a right to privacy to American law.

His parents were Jewish immigrants from Prague, and as a teenager Brandeis lived in Dresden, Germany, for two years. But he preferred the United States. He said, "In Kentucky you could whistle." He came back to study law at Harvard and graduated at the top of his class. As a lawyer, he specialized in progressive causes, fighting for minimum wage laws and for anti-trust laws. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Brandeis to the Supreme Court. He was the first Jewish person to be nominated to the Supreme Court.

Twelve years later, Brandeis wrote the first Supreme Court opinion asserting a right to privacy in the case Olmstead v. United States. Federal agents had tapped the phone of a man named Olmstead who was selling whiskey illegally. The court ruled against Olmstead, since the Fourth Amendment says nothing about listening to a conversation as constituting a search or a seizure. But Brandeis wrote a dissenting opinion in which he said, "Constitutional amendments must have the capacity to adapt to a changing world. ... The progress of science in furnishing the government with the means of espionage is not likely to stop with wiretapping. ... Whenever a telephone line is tapped, the privacy of the persons at both ends is invaded."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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