Baptists in the house of Young


My great-grandfather, Henry Bolton Steelman

The Old West was still a thing in the state of Utah as the year 1899 gave way to 1900 and the 20th Century began. Actual statehood there was still in its infancy, having been bestowed by the U.S. just four years earlier.

Mormon pioneers, whose descendants would become synonymous with Utah, began arriving 53 years previously, and the ensuing decades were raucous indeed, including an early dalliance with slavery, an awarding of the vote to women before the rest of the country took that step, and actual warfare with the federal government over polygamy. The Mormons, led by Brigham Young, seemed determined to establish a theocracy (proposed name – Deseret) within American democracy, and some would argue they have effectively succeeded in modern times.

So Utah in 1900 was also still the Wild West – volatile and violent despite the heavy influence of religion, or maybe because of it. Wedged into that hardscrabble world was my great-grandfather, Henry Bolton Steelman, a Baptist minister sent to Salt Lake City in 1891 with a call to build the congregation there – in effect, to erode the Mormon base.

One of Reverend Steelman’s daughters was my maternal grandmother, Eleanor Steelman Dark. She was born in Salt Lake City in 1898, the second youngest of seven children close enough together in age to make Utah central to the development of that young family. While Great-Grandpa was transferred to Minnesota a short time later, in 1901, the Wasatch Front remained a primary gathering point for the Steelmans for the rest of my grandmother’s life. They were Baptists in the house of Young.

Henry Bolton Steelman did pretty well in Salt Lake City. As explained in the book The American Baptist Pulpit at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century, “the Baptist cause made distinct gains” under Reverend Steelman, attracting enough worshippers in that city of 53,000 (population in 1900) to drive the construction of three new churches, prompting a merger after his departure that resulted in a much more robust First Baptist Church.

Baptist church

First Baptist Church of Salt Lake City

There isn’t a lot more history than that available on the internet, and it leaves a great-grandson of Henry Bolton Steelman with numerous questions about the man and his mission. How did he do it? Did he consider the Mormon church a competitor? What about other faiths? How did he convince people to change faiths, assuming that occurred? How did he convince the godless to reconsider and embrace religion? Was it a civil environment for such pursuits or was it fraught with conflict, petty rivalries, and physical risk? How was his family treated in Salt Lake City?

Perhaps I’ll never know. But I wonder, deep inside the historical archive of the world headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, if memories of my great-grandfather occupy some space, and if I went and asked nicely if I would be able to see them. There’s another item for the ol’ bucket list.

When I was a journalist many years ago I interviewed a Protestant minister who had just moved to Sacramento from Salt Lake City, and I asked him some of those same questions about competing with the Mormons. He didn’t say much, other than confirming that, in his opinion, Utah was in fact a theocracy. And then he told a joke about making sure you took two Mormons fishing with you instead of one so they wouldn’t drink your beer. That probably went for Baptists, too. You know, that may be part of the reason my mother led us down a different denominational path. We were raised as Presbyterians, and while my brother and I largely stepped away from the church in adulthood (sorry, GG), my sister led her family into the Lutheran church, where they remain to this day and are active in leadership – direct descendants of a legendary spiritual leader who, if he is indeed looking on from the afterlife, is hopefully doing so with ecumenical pride.







Doing as little as possible at the post office


A recent trip to the post office reminded me how little has changed at that strangely limp American institution during my lifetime. A clerk noted that the box I was shipping really needed more tape around the label. “Thank you,” I said. “Can you help with that?” She demurred, saying, “We don’t have tape – only for sale.” That’s right, the post office doesn’t have tape.

The clerk apparently expected to me to travel back to wherever I packaged the item–in this case my house–to apply two strips of tape. I told her I would take my chances and sent the box, anyway. She accepted it with the familiar flat countenance that has been in place at post offices for decades and must be carefully cultivated by those processing our mail. The clerk succeeded in doing as little as possible.

The US Postal Service has a long and storied history that includes the romantic notion of heroic mail carriers enduring “rain, sleet and snow” (might as well add oppressive heat and pestilence), to make six-day-a-week deliveries to you, the noble and courageous American citizen. But we actually find it easier to accept Wayne Knight’s depiction of a mailman – Newman in “Seinfeld.” Newman was cowardly, slovenly, mean-spirited and larcenous, and he somehow managed to maintain an apartment on the Upper East Side. He acted out a stereotype we tend to believe about our postal employees, with an understanding that stereotypes, like cliches, sometimes develop for good reason.

Over the years I remember standing in line on multiple occasions at a crowded local PO, watching helplessly as a clerk closed down a window and went on break. Of course, breaks are essential – we all take them in every walk of life. However, if that worker was in the private sector the break would either be delayed a few minutes, in case the crowd thinned, or a replacement would step-in at the window. But not at the post office. Nothing will stand between clerks and their 10-minute rest period – not rain, nor sleet, nor snow…or actual work.


I have discovered that problems with the Postal Service extend beyond mere public/private comparisons. Several years ago our family needed to renew our passports and went to Sacramento’s main post office to try to take care of it. We walked into an administrative train wreck that made the DMV seem painless. It was mid-morning, and dozens of people were already sitting and standing around, looking thoroughly defeated. When I asked the *one* postal employee on duty how long the wait would be, she said she had no idea. “What, ten hours?” I asked. “Possibly,” she said. We bolted and a short time later discovered that the city of Sacramento offered passport services by appointment (not sure if the city still does this – I hope so). We were in and out in less than an hour. Bravo, USPS, bravo!

Having said all that, for the most part the Postal Service succeeds in its role–perhaps in spite of itself–as a vital part of American life and commerce. Even as we shift steadily to internet-based billing and payment, not to mention communications, a tremendous volume of those activities continues to move the old-fashioned way, and it all works because the mail system remains effective – efficient enough, as they say, for government work. And for that postal employees have our admiration and our sincere appreciation.

So merry Christmas, and good luck mailing your packages this holiday season. Just remember a couple of simple guidelines: a postal clerk’s schedule is more important than yours, and don’t expect any of them to cut loose with a couple of strips of tape.




Adventures in Moving

U Haul

So what do you do when your wife ignores your objections in buying a large piece of furniture in a town 140 miles from home, and you only have a passenger vehicle? Answer – rent a U-Haul truck. And what do you when she, accurately observing your dwindling reservoir of goodwill, says she’ll drive the truck herself? Answer – suck it up and volunteer for the assignment. And that’s how I recently ended up behind the wheel of a 15-foot rig for the extended milk run between Reno and Sacramento.

It had been years since I had taken U-Haul up on its generous offer of ‘Adventures in Moving,’ and while nothing extraordinary happened this time (I was once stranded on I-5 north of Bakersfield with a car in tow and a disconsolate tranquilized cat), it was memorable for several reasons:

  • Reno is generally a desolate place once you leave the casino-area, but I was still quite surprised to be directed to a lawn shed on a vacant lot to pick-up the truck. The U-Haul representative came over from an adjacent adult video store to complete the transaction.
  • It’s really easy to rent a truck. Pay someone a smallish sum of money ($112 in our case) and they hand you the keys. The gentleman behind the counter didn’t bother to ask me if I knew how to drive the thing. Instead I received a link to a PDF of a multi-page safety guide that I didn’t read. And then the guy asked if I needed insurance. I said, no, I had coverage – did he want to see it? He didn’t.
  • I have driven a Ford truck (the Tank) as my personal vehicle for the last 17 years. The U-Haul truck was a Ford. It was a little bigger, but it felt somewhat familiar.
  • U-Hauls used to have speed governors. I believe they were set at 60 or 65. No more. My wife commented that I drove the truck like it was a Maserati. It wasn’t a compliment.
  • Despite that, the gas mileage was really very good. U-Haul boasts about a number of features to improve fuel efficiency, like a sleeker body set and contoured edges. They seem to work.
  • The truck had a radio, but the sound of the engine combined with road noise created a barely tolerable cacophony that was screaming in my ears – the last thing I wanted to hear was music.
  • Like other commercial trucks, this one didn’t have a rear view mirror. I didn’t fully adjust to that in the short time I drove it – never quite trusting what I saw in the side mirrors but forging ahead anyway.
  • When you’re driving a U-Haul, other drivers give you a measure of respect they don’t otherwise. I signaled several times to change lanes amid tight quarters and found vehicles giving way rather than the usual response of speeding up as the driver flipped me off. Perhaps they figured that because I was driving a U-Haul I didn’t have the slightest idea what I was doing, which happened to be correct. Maybe it was fear rather than respect.
  • U-Hauls are considered proper trucks for regulatory purposes. The vehicle I drove was briefly inspected at the agricultural checkpoint at Truckee and I was required to stop at a truck scale. Both were first-time experiences for me.
  • I dropped the truck off in the rain the next day at a vacant lot behind a Sacramento Wienerschnitzel, and handed the keys to a guy at an adjacent car stereo store.

So that was my U-Haul experience. Coulda been a lot worse. Next time we go to Reno, though, we’re taking the Tank.

Donald Trump is…


*Donald Trump is a racist demagogue; a self-proclaimed sexual assailant; a blustering fool; a megalomaniacal narcissistic sociopath who doesn’t read; an alleged thief; an unrepentant shamer of the disabled and POWs; a petulant child with no social graces and no moral compass; a total nutjob; a whirlwind of chaos; a Twitter train wreck; a real estate huckster; a strange cat; a schoolyard bully wearing a cardboard crown and a t-shirt that doesn’t cover his stomach; a massive fucking joke; an incompetent CEO prone to bankruptcy; a pompous ass; a fraudulent deadbeat; an obese golfer; an enemy of Gold Star families; a demented instigator; a suspected Russian operative; a madman; an endless parade of bad hair days; a shifty bastard; an awkward, despicable simpleton; a pathological liar; a friend of Sarah Palin’s; a dim bulb; an international embarrassment; an infantile doofus; a blatantly transparent clod; a shrieking howler monkey hurling feces; a heartless rube; a carnival barker; a cesspool denizen; an arrogant, incurious meathead; a dumb crook; a stupendous moron; a propaganda machine; a television addict; an ignorant thug born with a silver spoon; an unstable pig; an alleged aficionado of urine; a larcenous operator of a “university;” a would-be dictator; an angry manchild; a reckless psychopath; a platitude-spouting con man; the diplomatic equivalent of a gorilla; a feckless draft dodger; an out-of-control dotard; a whining Baby Huey; a short fingered vulgarian; a bad impression of Alec Baldwin; an unfit pinhead; a Cheeto clown; an NRA stooge; an international laughingstock; a monosyllabic troglodyte; an enemy of Democracy; an idiotic conspiracy theorist; radioactive sewage; a divisive crackpot; a delusional stumblebum; a dour weasel; a friendless asshole; an unlikable insect; a little shit; an adulterer; sick and pathetic; a lazy mucker; a canary in the coal mine of America; an unsophisticated monster; a corrupt hellhound; a serial defendant; a humorless cretin; a miserable charlatan; a shill for bad steaks and wines; a one-act play; mentally ill; a harbinger of doom; a symptom of a fatal disease; a bumbling authoritarian; a total buffoon; a profoundly unstable creator of alternative reality; an abhorrent threat to our society; an unapologetic Islamophobe; a pouting beast; bonkers.

Donald Trump is the American president.

* All taken from descriptions on the internet


Dear Senator McCain


Dear Senator,

It is certainly within your rights to say that Hillary Clinton should shut up like you did after losing a presidential election. We must say, you handled your setback with grace, and you have gone on to distinguish yourself at times in a Congress full of batshit-crazy Republicans pretending there is now a real president in the White House. We especially appreciated your stand against various GOP attempts to ram through a dismal health care package to the Oval Office, where Trump would have definitely signed it despite having no idea what it said or what it meant. After all, who knew health care could be so complicated?

And Senator McCain, we have great personal sympathy for your recent health scare and wish you all the best against a deadly adversary: cancer. You’re facing it with the same courage you demonstrated during your captivity as a POW all those years ago. Unlike so many of your peers, Senator, you’re a genuine American hero with a status that rises above partisan politics. A grateful nation thanks you for your many decades of service.

Having said that, Senator, with all due respect, please shut up yourself. There are zero parallels between you and the current situation–ZERO–other than the fact that you both lost. Allow us to explain.

  1. Secretary Clinton did not nominate a deeply unqualified wingnut for vice-president who ran afoul of the campaign, scared numerous voters away, and accelerated a starkly polarizing political climate that resulted in the unmitigated toxic garbage fire now in the White House. You did.
  2. Secretary Clinton did not lose to an elegant, brilliant, highly-educated statesman who grew impressively in office. You did.
  3. Secretary Clinton did not lose the popular vote. You did.
  4. You did not experience an aftermath where the very legality of your loss was questioned. Secretary Clinton did.
  5. You did not have to sit back and watch the victor mount an assault on decency, competency and the foundations of American Democracy. Secretary Clinton did.

So, Senator, please get back to the matters that so desperately require your attention and stop complaining about Secretary Clinton. She has joined millions of other people who are profoundly disturbed by what they see. Her persistence in discussing the election reminds us all of the travesty that occurred, the one you helped deliver. You should admit your mistake and join us over here once and for all – for this moment is a genuine crisis, something else that rises above partisan politics.



Sociopath of the year

Trump 1

If I was editing “American Psychologist,” the magazine of the American Psychology Association, I would be sorely tempted to introduce a new feature – Sociopath of the Year.  Choosing a winner, of course, would be easy: the infantile Donald J. Trump.

Knowing that I would be criticized for attempting to mainstream a scholarly publication, I might agree to do it just once, and declare Trump the magazine’s “Sociopath for Life.”

Trump is considered by many to be a narcissistic sociopath, which I guess is worse. Given what we know about President Numb Nuts, it’s certainly not a stretch. The term “psychopath” has also been bandied about, and that’s even worse still, possibly landing Trump in Charles Manson country. Could you have imagined Manson as president?


Trump’s narcissistic episodes just this year are legion – including his inauguration, when he exited a vehicle in a self-absorbed trance to rush up the stairs and greet Barack and Michelle Obama, leaving Melania Trump behind. It made for a sad picture as she walked roughly 10 paces behind while holding a gift for the Obamas.

Looking at the more recent past, Trump decided that Thanksgiving was the perfect occasion to give thanks to himself, unleashing a Tweet between rounds of golf that listed numerous things he feels should be credited to him.

The Time Magazine kerfuffle was stone-cold classic Trump. Donnie the Narcissist just can’t conceive of a situation where he isn’t the most interesting man in the world, so when he came to believe there was some doubt about him being named Time’s Person of the Year, he decided to try to sabotage the thing and then, naturally, attempted to co-opt it. As usual, his clumsy plan backfired spectacularly and the avalanche of embarrassment that followed would have silenced any normal human being.

However, we know what we’re dealing with here – nothing seems to embarrass President Numb Nuts; he never admits to being wrong and has an annoying habit of increasing the volume instead. So once again (for, what, the 1,723rd time since last November?) we find ourselves asking how such a dysfunctional dolt ever made it to the White House.

Trump 2

“I’m number one.”

It’s a question that is still being seriously evaluated. Tanya Basu of the Daily Beast wrote a piece published today (11-26) called Why Do Narcissistic Sociopaths Succeed? Bottom line – a mix of remorseless overconfidence, brute dominance and charisma appeals to a lot of people. They know Trump’s an asshole and probably wouldn’t seek him out as a friend or associate, but he’s their asshole, and they paradoxically seek validation in their support of him. So while a majority of Americans wonder how such an awkward, despicable simpleton is president, the people behind him–the minority–see someone entirely different, and the result is a world now saddled with chaos in one of its most vital countries.

As for Time Magazine, I’d kinda like to see it name North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un as its Person of the Year, or LaVar Ball. Imagine the Tweets.




Ding Dong the Witch is Dead


The passing of maximum psycho Charles Manson brings back a lot of memories, all of them bad. Several people have remarked that his death occurred roughly 50 years too late. I think we gotta go back a bit further – it came 83 years too late. Manson should never have walked this earth.

He was my father’s age, and I remember wondering at the height of Manson’s fame, when I was 10 or 11 with the limited perspective you might expect, how a guy like my dad could ever do those things. Of course, Manson was nothing like my dad. At the time of the Tate-LaBianca murders the 35-year old Manson had already been in jail and other institutions for nearly half his life.

He was born to a 16-year old single mother who, if she wasn’t unhinged at the time, shortly reached that point. He seemed to experience very little of what could be described as a normal upbringing and was one of those tragic children who had no chance. That said, his wiring may have been fried from the very beginning, demonstrating, as Bruce Springsteen sang in his song Nebraska, “I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.” An appropriate, orderly life was obviously anathema to Manson and the fact that most people actually lived that way ultimately bothered him enough to mastermind a killing spree.

I equate both Manson and the Zodiac Killer with a certain point in history. As I said, I was quite young at the time and both men scared the living shit out of me. I had difficulty sleeping, and when I did manage to fall asleep I had nightmares. Manson continued to freak me out well into my teens–long after he was convicted and incarcerated–with his wild eyes and whacked-out followers, including Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, who attempted to further Manson’s legacy with an assassination attempt on President Gerald Ford in Sacramento in 1975.

Charles Manson forever tainted the Beatles’ “White Album” for me. He was under a delusion that the record was speaking to him, and many of you probably recall that his followers scrawled references on the walls at the mass murder sites, using the blood of their victims. To this day I can’t listen to ‘Helter Skelter’ with anything resembling enjoyment – all I see is Manson’s face with a maniacal grin, making the song threatening and spooky. The stunning ballad ‘Sexy Sadie,’ which is actually about the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, never breaks through the chill of being co-opted as the nickname of convicted killer Susan Atkins. And the silly ‘Piggies’ has taken on an entirely different meaning that will never be erased.

Buh-bye, Charlie. If there is in fact life after death,  I hope yours will be most unpleasant.