Friday, August 31, 2007

Letter to Jesse Jackson

Randolph J. Haspel
Memphis, TN

August 30, 2007

Reverend Jesse L. Jackson
Founder: Rainbow/PUSH Coalition

Dear Reverend Jackson,

I write as a long time supporter, contributor, and voter to both your presidential races. I have heard you speak in Memphis and Nashville, and I have been inspired while attending the early PUSH For Excellence Basketball games you brought to Memphis, and standing in a crowd of motivated young people shouting “I am somebody.” I believe in your concept of a Rainbow Coalition and the need for the “common ground” of which you so eloquently speak. Unfortunately, not all the people who claim to work in your name believe the same.

Rev. LaSimba Gray, of New Sardis Baptist Church, who claims to be the president of the Memphis chapter of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, has established a group within the Memphis Baptist Ministerial Association, to oppose and smear District 9 Rep. Steve Cohen, for his support for the same federal hate crimes bill that was endorsed by your own organization. Rev. Gray has joined in an unholy alliance with the James Dobsons and Donald Wildmons of this world, along with a cadre of conservative Evangelical Christian ministers, in repeating the lie that the passage of this bill will restrict their right to preach against homosexuality from the pulpit. Though the ministers have been repeatedly assured that the hate crimes bill does not affect freedom of speech, they are using the issue to smear the congressman in a Bush-like, pre-emptive strike before the 2008 elections.

Rep. Cohen is the legitimately elected, true Democrat from the district seat held by the Ford family for thirty years. Rev. Gray supported the eminently unqualified Jake Ford, who ran against Cohen as an independent. Even though Rep. Cohen has won praise for his great start in Congress from everyone from John Conyers to Bill Clinton, Rev. Gray has been lamenting the loss of the District’s seat to a white man, regardless of Cohen’s record or accomplishments. The Evangelical preachers say they are incensed that gays might receive special status, and in the original letter sent to Cohen by Baptist ministers, co-signed by Rev. Gray, they demanded that Cohen protect their “Christian values” so many times, the only thing that was missing was a salutation reading, “Dear Jew.” Rev. Gray has already announced his support for Nikki Tinker, a very attractive candidate in the mold of Joe Lieberman and Harold Ford, Jr., only with more corporate backing, when Cohen is the one who’s unafraid to say he is a Liberal and votes in the best interests of the community. In the first six months, Cohen has passed legislation to name a federal building after Judge Odell Horton, he has proposed an official apology for slavery be declared in Congress, and he serves with distinction on the House Judiciary Committee.

When Rep. Cohen met with a group of Baptist ministers to clarify the hate crimes bill, he was met with derision and scorn, not because of his support for the legislation, but because he is a white man who was democratically elected in a majority black district. The newspaper reported that in a rowdy question and answer session, Cohen was repeatedly accused of being unable to represent the district because of his race. Rev Robert Poindexter of Mt. Moriah Baptist Church was quoted as saying, “He’s not black and he can’t represent me, that’s just the bottom line.” Imagine those words transposed into the mouth of a white preacher speaking of a black candidate. Even you, Rev. Jackson, would say that man was a consummate racist.

This hate campaign against the Jewish congressman is taking place in your name, Rev. Jackson, with the imprimatur of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition in the person of Rev. LaSimba Gray. Rev. Gray, and a small group of preachers within the Baptist organization, are opposing the hate crimes legislation that would attempt to stop racially motivated slayings like that of James Byrd in Texas. They are using your organization that preaches “common ground,” to attack and falsely vilify a Congressman, sufficiently enough for the leaders of the Ministerial group to issue a letter of apology. I know these are not the principles upon which the Rainbow PUSH Coalition was founded, but we need to hear from you Rev. Jackson. We need for you to repudiate these repugnant tactics and support Rep. Steve Cohen, one of the truly liberal Democrats in the Congress. The people of Memphis are bone weary of racist politics, Rev. Jackson. You may not be able to end it all, but you could help put a stop to this particularly ugly incident. I implore you to help.


Randolph J. Haspel

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


A hypothesis on the meaning of life, based on a layman's study of comparative religion.

After a search through a trove of books, I am one of those people who believe that the answers to the eternal questions can be found within. Only in the past few years, did I find that this belief in a personal truth had a name. It is Gnosticism, as opposed to agnosticism, which means you just can't commit. Please regard,
"Randy's revelations from religious ruminations."

1. If there is creation, there is a creator. To avoid confusion, we'll call this entity Steve.

2. There is no Steve but Steve, but all other names for Steve are equally valid.

3. Steve is the primal force, vibration, sound, event, and designer of creation and, yes, it is quite intelligent.

4. It is a mistake to think of Steve in human form since he is formless. The spark of life within every person, or soul, is of the exact same substance as Steve. Thus, the translation of the biblical verse, "God created man in His own image," refers to the soul. Since this energy is divine, it is also immortal. All energy is immortal. The body depreciates, but the soul is ageless. It's resale value remains intact and the warranty never expires.

5. Although there is a probability of other life forms in the universe, the Earth is the realm of Steve's divine play, or leela in Sanskrit, and mankind is the only species capable of reflection, knowledge of self, and contemplation upon the eternal soul by a mortal mind. This is the only life that offers the chance for the soul's advancement. There are no UFOs, Venusians, or Little Green Men, except for Billy Lee Riley's band. NASA is firing our rockets in the wrong direction. More information about the origin of man can be found beneath the seas than beyond the stars.

6. Since the soul consists of the stuff and substance of Steve, the heart's desire is to return Steveward. The ultimate purpose of the soul's journey is to merge human awareness with Steve awareness. This requires an accumulation of experience and wisdom that takes more than one lifetime to achieve. Thus, the soul is in a constant birth/death/rebirth continuum, as is all of nature, until you get it right. Nature moves in a cycle, but the soul travels in a spiral. The soul advances Steveward, or away from Steve, according to thoughts and deeds while in human form. Some call this karma, or cause and effect, and reincarnation. Some call it, "What goes around.."

7. Your soul is an individual soul, and though it may animate many vessels in many ages, it remains a unique gift from Steve to you. Humans have karma, families have karma, communities have karma, nations have karma. In order to sufficiently learn from the human experience, souls must be incarnated in groups to resolve past issues and advance to the next round, like in Family Feud. Thus, families are incarnated together, although not necessarily in the same roles or genders, to learn of the absolute equality of the spirit. That's what makes "Deja Vu" such a fascinating notion. So, say hello to your Uncle Max, my boy. And don't be going upside anyone's head, lest your head be gone upside against.

8. Any method of seeking Steve is valid, as long as it includes service to man and seeks to foster peace and communion. The least any individual can do, is restrain from intentionally harming anyone else. Steve's messengers say, "There are many paths up the mountain, but they all eventually lead to the top." Any group that claims to know the exclusive way to Steve, has delusions of grandeur. Killing in Steve's name causes you to be demoted and held back a grade. You will not be graduating with your class and must repeat the entire term. If you return a leper, you had it coming.

9. Steve is not prejudiced. If Steve chose to send a divine messenger, or evolved being, to reveal eternal truths to a group of people in one part of the world, it's a logical imperative to assume that he would send his messengers to people in all parts of the world. Enlightened teachers from Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Zoroaster, Confucius, Muhammad, and the present Saints of India are living examples of the capacity of humanity to achieve Steve consciousness. There are hundreds of Holy Scriptures in the world written by thousands of divinely inspired men. One book alone cannot contain the infinite wisdom of Steve.

10. Steve doesn't care if you believe in him or not. It's inconsequential to his purposes. He does, however, value righteous action over rigid religiosity any day. The search for Steve begins with a thirst for truth and not a desire for dogma. Since brainwaves create ripples in the ether and Steve encourages communing with the spirit; prayer, meditation, and contemplation are good things. But there are billions of stars and Steve does not micromanage life on this one. He sets the wheel in motion and gives you what you need, and then you are responsible for your own salvation. The church is for those who benefit from the comfort of ritual, but Steve resides in your heart, bidden or unbidden.

11. Everything does not happen for a reason. That is an arrogant and homo-sapiencentric assumption. Sometimes, things happen for no reason at all. It is Steve's nature to allow for free will and random accident. Every event in life, negative and positive, offers the chance for spiritual growth, even tragedy. Evil exists in the human realm because of ignorance, but if you screw up, don't go blaming Steve by saying that it was his will.

12. Steve created evolution. Natural selection is Steve's way of seeing which of his creations can cut it. The dinosaurs are now our fossil fuel. To prevent our becoming fuel for a future superspecies, we must get about the business of evolving. Now that we have achieved opposable thumbs, further evolution in man must take place in the heart. War is not the natural state of mankind. Although Arjuna had to fight in the Bhagavad Gita, and Ecclesiastes says there is "a time for war," peace is the evolutionary, and revolutionary destination of mankind.

13. When Steve created physics, those laws function in a physical world in perpetual flux and thus, are in transition. If man's evolution is continual, then the rational mind must allow for the possibility of the irrational. If Steve has dominion over the laws of physics, he can also defy them, since they only operate in this realm. Paranormal powers, psychic energies, ESP, clairvoyance, and miracles are not only possible, they are within the reach of humanity in its evolutionary state. There is already enough anecdotal evidence in hypnosis, meditation, and past life regression to warrant scientific study into metaphysical phenomena. The power of Steve is within you.

14. Steve is love. Whatever the question, the answer is Steve.

Thursday, August 16, 2007


I got the call early on Aug. 16, 1977. My friend and guitarist Donnie Baer's brother-in-law was a fireman who had monitored the first ambulance calls to Graceland, and he was reporting Elvis had died. I replied with one word, "bullshit." There was nothing on radio or TV yet, and enough reason to disbelieve, at least for a short while. Elvis had become a curio by 1977, and had long passed the days when he was an active influence in popular music. But people from Memphis felt a special pain at his passing, especially those who had been there at the beginning.

My sister, Susan, returned home from a teenage party at the Gayosa Hotel on Main Street in 1957, flushed with excitement. Elvis had chosen the occasion to visit his friend, disc jockey Dewey Phillips, at the WHBQ radio studios in the hotel, "On the Magazine Floor," in Deweyspeak. After his visit, someone informed him of the party of twelve and thirteen year olds going on in the ballroom, and he took the time to come say hello to all the kids. Susan breathlessly told me about Elvis putting his arm around her and posing for a photograph, and I could picture the entire scene in my mind. Susan, short haired and diminutive in bobby sox and saddle oxfords, with Elvis, wearing a two-tone sport coat with the collar turned up in the back and slicked back hair, draping an arm casually around my sister's shoulder. Years later, I asked her what ever became of that picture, but Susan continues to insist that no such photo has ever existed. But I can still see it. After all, I developed it in my imagination for my scrapbook of Elvis memories.

That's how much we loved him. It was inconceivable to think of Memphis without his presence. When the nation saw him for the first time on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, we felt were watching one of our own conquer the world. And Elvis' loyalty to Memphis never wavered, even during the dismal Hollywood era. During the Quaalude years, I knew a girl who worked in the pharmacy across the street from Dr. Nick's office on Madison Ave. She told me that one of the guys was picking up packages of 100 Quaaludes a week for Elvis. I imagined the slur-fest that must be going on up at Graceland with "E" and all the guys, but I never thought Elvis could be ingesting them all himself. That's a dose to knock down a silverback gorilla. At the same time, reports of bizarre behavior by Elvis of using police lights to pull over cars and behaving like a narc, or interfering in the arguments of strangers as if he were a superhero, began to surface. When the drug problem became public knowledge, there was no Betty Ford clinic to check into, or facility to dryout and rehabilitate a reputation. The tragedy of Elvis' lonely death is that the Colonel had him end his years, playing a carnie circuit of arenas as a very sick man, in order to cover the Colonel's Vegas gambling debts.

When Elvis died, I, and several other musicians, gathered at the Sam Phillips Studio to talk it over. We ended up surrounding a piano being played by James Brown Hooker of the Rhythm Aces. There was Donnie, Bob Simon, Jerry Phillips, Casper Peters, Teddy Paige, and other regulars, and we began to sing Elvis songs. But because we were irreverent, we sang them all in minor keys, like "Hound Dog," only in E-minor, making it sound like a Gregorian chant. We were laughing to cover our sorrow, since every person in that room was aware that the reason we were even standing there, was because of Elvis. The very studio itself, stood because of Elvis. We were the musical spawn of Elvis. Whatever careers in music we had, we owed to him. That's how important he was in our lives.

I recall thinking in the early 70s, that there was no further need for Elvis to be so isolated. The people of Memphis were used to his presence and would allow him to interact normally in society without too much interference. I saw Jerry Lee Lewis and his entourage out on the town all the time. His boys protected him from the severely inebriated and he was generally gracious to everyone else. I wondered why Elvis couldn't live in a similar manner. But, I was walking down the concourse of the Memphis Airport, back in the days when you could actually meet someone at the gate, and I saw this bizarre looking man walking toward me headed for the exits. I thought, "I know this guy," but I couldn't place him, despite the white jumpsuit. He was very handsome, with unusually large facial pores that looked sanded, and a shock of the blackest hair to come out of a bottle. When I caught up to my mother ahead of me, she asked, "Did you see Elvis?" Only then did all the gears mesh and without another word, I turned and began running after Elvis like a crazed teenage girl. I caught up to him just as he was entering his car on the passenger side. He looked up and I said with understated brilliance, "Hey Elvis. How you doing?" "Fine man. How 'bout you?"

My single conversation with Elvis made me realize that, if I had chased after him at full speed through an airport just to gaze upon his countenance, perhaps he couldn't come out in public after all. I have attended many Elvis "Death Week" events over the years, including conferences, dinners, and impersonator competitions. At first, I went for the freak show aspect of it; to witness these people who were turning Elvis into a world spiritual figure. But the devotion and sincerity of these Elvis fans, who come here during the hottest days of the year, was moving to me instead. I went to laugh, and ended up crying. In the middle of yet another Ronnie McDowell "tribute," I looked to the back of the room and saw a large group of Japanese tourists standing and silently weeping copious tears. You have to marvel at the astonishing depth of emotion created by this one man, in people from all corners of human existence.

I never got to meet Elvis. I might have imposed upon George Klein or members of the Phillips family to wrangle myself an introduction, but that would have been very un-Elvislike of me. I was lucky enough to have been at the epicenter of the Elvis explosion and could never describe to a non-Memphian how incredibly exciting it was. Like cotton candy, Elvis' music is a confection that conjures up wonderful memories that linger long after it's gone. I did write a short poem for him after his death, titled; Elvis Never Bought Me a Cadillac.
Elvis never bought me a Cadillac/ He never knew my name.
I never got a diamond ring/ But I loved him just the same.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Baghdad On The Mississippi

I have had a variety of truncheons, knives, and batons around the house, but I have never owned a gun. My family members were not firearm enthusiasts. I had a 22. rifle on loan when I lived in the county back in the day, and got to be a whiz at knocking the "D" out of a Dr. Pepper can at fifty paces, but I never considered it as protection. My most provocative weapon is a Louisville Slugger that has been tooled and tipped to be a walking cane. Who's going to mess with a guy carrying a baseball bat? Now I know.

When Melody and I moved into our home five years ago, two blocks away from the neighborhood where I grew up, my stepson, Cameron, went to spend the night at a friend's. I was watching TV at 3:00AM, when I saw the silhouette of a large man approach the thinly curtained back door. I immediately thought Cameron had changed his mind and come home, until I realized the man was working the lock. Like a fool, I shouted as loudly as I could, jumped up and grabbed the fireplace poker and moved toward the door. I don't know who was more afraid; the awakened dogs, the intruder, or me. He ran out the back gate, that we have since secured with a lock, and disappeared. When we called 911, our backyard was crawling with young, undercover cops in minutes. This was the east Memphis creeper who stalked the Sam Cooper Blvd. area for years, a thief so brazen he took jewelry and cash from the night tables of sleeping residents. Months later, when a burglar was killed trying to break into a house's skylight while the owner waited with a gun, we were told that this was our prowler.

We made sure our security system was working well and began to turn it on at night, even while we were at home. A week ago, Cameron, who is now in college, came over to inform us that the night before, he was robbed at gunpoint. He and a friend, both Lacrosse players well over six feet, went to a field in the early morning with their gear to practice, when approached by two black men with handguns who demanded their valuables. When the boys said all their stuff was at home, they were robbed of their iPods and shoes. They reported it, but didn't expect any results. We were relieved and thankful that he wasn't shot just for the hell of it.

It was 100 degrees in Memphis yesterday, only eleven degrees cooler than Baghdad. In Iraq, sectarian violence is taking a terrible toll. Local TV station WREG reports that Memphis homicides have skyrocketed past last years' number at this date by twenty, and at this rate, we could top the record 212 murders recorded in 1993. Statistics show over 70% of these homicides are between acquaintances or relatives and have resulted from an alarming increase in the number of personal, domestic, and other disputes, not related to criminal activity. That's an awful lot of angry people out there killing each other, and we haven't begun to discuss the ominous home invasions, muggings, carjackings, and murders by actual criminals. There is a palpable fear and hostility in the air, reminiscent of 1968, and citizens are wary of the next stray bullet and are leaving the city. We rarely go out in public much since we have wearied of enduring the ongoing aggravation of others incapable of civility. After this week's bridge collapse in the Twin Cities, there has been a lot of talk about "Minnesota Nice." People in Memphis are no longer nice.

The argument about the relation between poverty and despair, and crime and drugs, is best left for another time. Never before, however, have we had such a lethal gang problem and underground drug economy. Or a thug-life mentality, promoted by hip-hop moguls to white teenagers, and accepted as reality for those in the city with little hope. The whites hate the blacks, the blacks hate the whites, and everybody hates the "new niggers," the Mexicans. Our school system is floundering while major companies open new facilities in Arkansas and Mississippi. Half the City Council have chosen not to run for reelection while the last of the elected Fords, Ophelia, can't seem to show up for work without being arrested or hospitalized. As a steady stream of elected officials head off to prison, the bedlam continues at Memphis Light, Gas and Water unabated, and the mayor is seeing messianic visions, one wonders if there is a future for our city.

Many of my friends have done more than talk about leaving, they're gone. Mostly to places where the racial discord of Memphis doesn't exist. Others have relocated to the suburbs and endure the commute, while those who are able, hang in as best they can. I can't recall any friend or acquaintance, however, expressing any joy about living here recently. Like many native Memphians, I have left the city for periods of time and returned. After all, this is where my family and my oldest friends are, and I know it's the single place where someone cares a little something about me and won't let the poor boy down,(to paraphrase Chuck Berry). But Melody and I have discussed leaving too. We have a cadre of friends from Tennessee who moved to Eugene, Oregon in the late 60s, and it certainly seems like a peaceable place to exist. Of course, we have to wait for me to paint my masterpiece before we could afford it. In the meantime, we're doing the next best thing, and I never in my life believed I would say this; I'm getting a gun.