shunn: (Elder Shunn)
The following story is an outtake from my memoir The Accidental Terrorist. The names of most of the other participants, including relatives, have been changed to offer some small measure of concealment.

When I was eighteen, my father and I drove from northern Utah to Los Angeles for my cousin Delia's wedding. I had recently put in my application to become a Mormon missionary, and I had yet to learn where I'd be spending the next two years of my life. It wasn't for the sake of one last road trip with my father, though, that I agreed to tag along. I was hoping to meet Danny Elfman.

After the wedding—a brief affair in a tiny chapel like a sugar-frosted cake—the entire gathering moved down the road to the Arcadia Women's Club, a large banquet hall for rent, where a shaggy trio played jazz on a spare proscenium. A dozen long tables were set up in ranks across the room, and we enjoyed an abundant feast of cold cuts, casseroles, and cakes as the music played. "Hey," I said to my aunt Deborah, who sat across from my father and me, "I thought Oingo Boingo was supposed to play."

"All Delia and Sammy's friends are musicians," she said, "so lots of different people are playing. I don't think they're on until later."

elfman-boingo.jpg "Oh, okay." I glanced at my father, deep in conversation with Uncle Carl, and hoped he wouldn't make me leave too early.

Someone tapped me on the shoulder. "Hey, is that my number-one cousin?" said a rasping voice.

I turned to encounter a beaming apparition in a powder-blue leisure suit. (This was 1986, and even then the look was smarmy.) "Markie?"

"That's me," said Markie, arms spread. He might have been taking the stage for a Vegas-style lounge act. "Didn't recognize me with the haircut, did you, Billy?"

The last time I'd seen my cousin Markie, a thicket of curly, light-brown hair had nearly concealed his face. Someone had taken a hacksaw to the tangle in the meantime, chopping it short and (mostly) squaring it off. "It took me a minute," I said. "You look ... great."

"Thanks. Figured my sister's wedding, I should clean up a little."


He grabbed my arm. "Well hey, Billy, come on. I gotta introduce you to the gang."

He dragged me first to a knot of shady characters clustered in a dim corner of the room. They had each made a stab at cleaning up for the wedding, but none had gone quite to Markie's extreme. "Hey, guys," he said, "I want you all to meet my number-one cousin Billy."

His friends transferred their beers to their left hands so we could shake, and I tried not to look too uncomfortable. I liked Markie, but his several arrests for drug-dealing were no secret in the family, and I figured I was rubbing shoulders here with a regular underworld convocation of scofflaws.

I glowed bright pink, ducking my head, as Markie gushed on. "He's the genius in the family. He used to say the alphabet backwards when he was just a little guy, wearing these great big, thick glasses. He plays the piano, and he skipped all these grades, too."

"Just one," I said. "First grade."

"And he's modest, too!" said Markie, slapping me on the back.

We worked our way around the hall, Markie and I, until finally we ended up in the kitchen among the fragments of turkeys and fruit pies, chatting with a huge dark fellow with a thick black beard, a leather vest, and arms sleeved in colorful tattoos. Markie dragooned him into helping us clean up the kitchen.

A half-dozen plastic garbage bags later, Markie's friend had made himself scarce. Markie leaned on his broom, lit a cigarette, and asked, "So what's new in your life, Billy? Girlfriend, anything like that?"

Markie's attention and his willingness to help with the scutwork behind the scenes at the reception had put me at ease. As we cleaned, he had regaled me with stories of close brushes with the law and of his drunken exploits at parties with Quiet Riot, and I laughed until my sides ached. His friends were nice guys, not at all the way I had pictured drug dealers. My horizons were expanding and I was feeling good. "No girlfriend," I said, "at least not at the moment."

"Bummer, man," he said.

"Well, it's no big deal. I'm leaving on my mission soon anyway."

Markie raised his eyebrows, dragging on his cigarette. "Mission? That's like what Uncle Doug's kid did. Lauren, right? Where'd she go?"


"Yeah, Iowa. Where are you going?"

"I don't know yet."

"Hey, you're smart. They'll send you someplace like, I don't know, China or something. Not Iowa."

A broad open window above the counter in the kitchen looked out at the banquet hall. Markie puffed his cigarette, staring at the crowd. A new band played discordant rock from the stage, almost submerging the murmur of conversation.

"Hey," I said, "is it true that Boingo's supposed to play here?"

He nodded. "Yup."


"I don't know," said Markie, distracted. "Party's supposed to go all night. Midnight they're on, I think."

"No way," I said, my heart sinking. It was only two in the afternoon.

Markie stubbed out his cigarette in the sink, still looking out at the crowd. "Hey, Billy, I see my friend Daisy out there." He motioned. "C'mon, you gotta meet her."

He led me through the door back into the banquet hall. "Who's Daisy?" I asked.

With a little backward glance, he headed down the row between two tables. He leaned toward me so he could speak quietly. "She used to be one of my girls back when I was pimping. She quit all that to get married, but I think I could still get her to do my number-one cousin for free."

All the breath left my lungs, like a giant rock had crushed my chest.

And suddenly there was Daisy.

She stood up from the table to greet Markie with a warm hug and a kiss, then sat down again. An empty chair waited to either side of her. Markie took the one closer to the stage. I took the other.

"Daize, this is my number-one cousin Billy," said Markie.

The woman dutifully turned to shake my hand, but without really noticing me. She was thin, around Markie's age, with skin tanned nearly to the texture of leather. Her hair was short and brown, and she wore a sleeveless pink denim dress so brief that it barely covered her crotch. The dress buttoned up the front, but she had it unbuttoned to the middle of her fairly flat chest. She wasn't wearing anything underneath. After her perfunctory greeting, she turned back to Markie, and I was forgotten in the minutiae of their small talk.

After several minutes, I grew uncomfortable and restless enough that I decided it was time to excuse myself. But just as I was making my move, Markie leaned past Daisy and said, in a complete non sequitur, "Hey, Billy—are you still a virgin?"

Swallowing, I settled back into my chair. "Yes," I said, feeling my limbs grow cold.

Daisy's head swiveled around like a radar dish, locking into place as its target was acquired. Her green eyes fastened hungrily on me, sparkling. "Ree-ally," she said.

"Look at that," said Markie. "He's a real Shunn. He can say that without even blushing." He stood up and patted both Daisy and me on the shoulder. "Hey, I've got someone I need to go talk to. I'll catch both of you later."

Then Markie was gone. My lifeboat fled, I bobbed helpless and seasick on an unknown ocean.

Daisy's shoulders shimmied a little. I could see the play of muscles beneath her skin as she squirmed in her chair. She hunched forward like a confessor or a confidant in her flimsy metal folding chair. Her bare knees nearly touched mine.

"So, you're a virgin, Billy," she said.

I did not find her attractive, but still she exuded confidence and sexuality like a musk. I swallowed. Her eyes held me fast.

"That's right," I said.

"So, Goody Two-Shoes, what do you do? Do you mess around a little?" She shifted on her chair, smiling mischievously. "Do you eat pussy?"

My mouth was so dry I nearly choked. The giddy thought went through my brain that if Mormonism were a graduate program, then this was my real oral exam. It took me a moment to find my voice. "Uh, no—no, I don't."

Her brow furrowed in question. Her teeth were small and even. "Well, why not?"

The scents of meat and cigarette smoke seemed to thicken in my throat. "Because of my religion," I said, somewhat stiffly.

Daisy burst out laughing. My cheeks blazed.

"Sorry, sorry," she said, waving her hand as she tried to get herself under control. "Religion, I'm sorry, I can respect that, I can respect it. You must take it very seriously."

I nodded, trying to keep the tremor from my hands. I felt humiliated.

"What religion is it?" she asked.

"Mormon," I said. "I'm going to be missionary pretty soon. I have to ... adhere to standards."

She leaned in close. I could smell the soap she had washed with, and I could see down her dress to her navel. "Look, I didn't mean to laugh. That's a great thing, really." Her voice dropped to a husky, conspiratorial whisper. "But tell me, Billy—have you ever seen the inside of a cathouse?"

"Uh, no."

"Would you like to? I could give you a personal tour."

"Well, I'm not sure I ... I..."

"Here, I'll give you a card." She felt the breast pocket of her dress. "Shit, they're in the truck. And I can't go get one or my husband will see me." She compressed her lips in thought. "Here, do you have a pen?"

I patted my breast pockets. "Sorry, I'm fresh out."

"Damn," she said. "I'd give you my number and you could call, but—" She shrugged. "Well, that's life."

"C'est la vie," I agreed.

She rested her chin in her hand, scrutinizing me through quizzical eyes. "Tell me one thing, Billy. Let's say you wandered into a cathouse somehow, and a woman there tied you up and started to rape you. What would you do?"

I sighed, brows raised. "I don't suppose there'd be much I could do. As long as I was helpless, I guess I'd have to just relax and try to enjoy it."

Daisy smiled. She patted my knee and stood up. "You know something, Billy? You're okay."

She slung her purse over her brown, brown shoulder and strolled away into the crowd: some wicked, postmodern Mary Poppins hunting children more corruptible to nursemaid. Her image in my mind's eye didn't fade so quickly as she did, nor did her touch on my knee.

If only she knew how corruptible I wished I were.

Dazed, I wandered back to where my father was sitting with Aunt Deborah and Uncle Carl. Almost as soon as I sat down, my father wiped his mouth with his napkin. "Well, I think it's time for us to be leaving," he said to the relatives. "We'll see you back at the house."

I looked at my watch. "But ... Boingo..."

"You don't want to be here until midnight," said my father.

And that was that. I never did get to meet Danny Elfman. But years later, that's not the missed opportunity I can't stop thinking about.

Crossposted from Inhuman Swill
shunn: (Elder Shunn)
To follow up on yesterday's belated review of The Book of Mormon, I wanted to tell you about a funny thing that happened after the show. book_of_mormon_elder_shunn.jpg As at most Broadway productions, we were invited to contribute to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS by depositing cash in the buckets that cast members would be holding various exits. When we reached the main floor from our nosebleed seats, I pulled a twenty out of my wallet and made a beeline for Lewis Cleale, who was still in his Joseph Smith costume.

Now, you have to understand that I came to the show in costume. Laura had dug up my old missionary name tag, which I proudly wore together with a white shirt and tie (much to the amusement and/or chagrin of our theatergoing companions). Imagine the confusion and concern of the poor actor, dressed as the founder of Mormonism, as, after a production lampooning the faith, a stout Mormon missionary marches straight up to him. According to my friend Chris Connolly, the man flinched as if I might attack him.

Imagine his relief when all I did was tell him what a great job he'd done as I dropped money into his bucket. Yeah, that was fun.

Crossposted from Inhuman Swill
shunn: (Elder Shunn)
It used to be that when people would find out I'm a former Mormon, they'd ask me whether or not I watch Big Love and how closely it matches my experience of growing up in Utah. (Answers: "Yes" and "Not much.") Over the past year, though, that has changed. Now they ask whether or not I've seen The Book of Mormon.

The answer to that is yes. In fact, as soon as the Broadway production was announced, Laura and I started making plans to visit New York and see it. With my background, how could we not? We put together a group of friends that included my agent and got tickets for April 9th, about two weeks after the show's official opening. I bought our tickets early enough that it wasn't hard to get seats for a group of eight on our preferred date. But by the time we actually saw it, the hype had revved up to such a wild extent that people were asking us how on earth we'd managed to score tickets.

The Book of Mormon—from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and Avenue Q co-creator Robert Lopez—was the most celebrated new musical of the 2011 Broadway season, and it's easy to see why. book_of_mormon_poster.jpg It has everything an audience in search of some dangerous New York City titillation could ask for—dirty words, blasphemy, violence, Mormons, sexual innuendo, frequently all crammed together into catchy production numbers—all consumable from the relative safety of a plush theater seat. It's been a giant hit with crowds and critics alike, landing nine Tony Awards (including Best Musical), five Drama Desk Awards (including Outstanding Musical), and who knows how many best-stuff-of-the-year lists. It kicks off a national tour this August, and a Chicago production will take up residence in the Bank of America Theatre this December. People are falling all over themselves to tell you how good it is.

Is it really that good? I don't think so. Did I enjoy it? Yes, to an extent. Was it funny? Yes, to an extent. Was it anything like my experience as a missionary? Yes—but to a very small, almost irrelevant extent.

The Book of Mormon tells the story of Kevin Price (Andrew Rannells), a Mormon youth who dreams of serving as a missionary in Orlando, Florida. Instead, he gets assigned to Uganda with Arnold Cunningham (an irrepressible Josh Gad) as his companion. Elder Cunningham is just about the biggest screw-up ever to pass through the Missionary Training Center, and Elder Price tries to put the best face on both disappointing assignments.

But Uganda turns out to be even more hellish than he could have imagined. The more experienced, longer-serving missionaries have not managed to convert a single soul in that war-ravaged land. Poverty and famine reign supreme. AIDS is rampant, its spread only exacerbated by the belief that it can be cured by having sex with a virgin (which spawns a surfeit of baby-rape jokes). A local warlord rules with a bloody iron fist. And the villagers get through their days by cursing God in no uncertain terms from behind philosophical grins.

Elder Price, depressed, does his best to preach the gospel according to Joseph Smith, but throws in the towel after the warlord, General Butt-Fucking Naked (Brian Tyree Henry), murders a man in front of him. It falls to Elder Cunningham to take over the proselytizing effort. But the well-meaning Cunningham, who didn't pay very close attention in class at the MTC, has never actually read the Book of Mormon, which forces him to invent gospel stories more tailored to the realities of life in Uganda.

The Book of Mormon is, above all else, funny—side-splittingly funny through a couple of long stretches. Okay, I'll say it. I think my first viewing of the South Park movie in a crowded theater was the last time I laughed as hard as I did right up through the show-stopping musical number "Hasa Diga Eebowai," an incredibly profane and blasphemous riff on sunny, reductive ditties like The Lion King's "Hakuna Matata." (On the off-chance you've been living in a cloister for the past twelve months and don't know the translation of "hasa diga eebowai," I won't spoil it for you.)

The songs are mostly terrific too, certainly up to the standards of the past twenty years of Broadway musicals. The production numbers are tuneful and funny, and there are even good laughs to had in the quieter numbers. book_of_mormon_scene.jpg (A particular favorite of mine is "Baptize Me," a song that very cleverly casts a request for cleansing from sin into the mode of one of those syrupy R&B loss-of-virginity ballads.) And the performances are certainly spirited, especially Josh Gad's in the role of the hapless but well-meaning Elder Cunningham.

But the show suffers in other ways. From a dramatic standpoint, the story's through-line is fractured by the disappearance of Elder Price, the nominal protagonist, through large portions of the second act. (I know that Price's character is meant to skewer the trope of the Broadway hero whose naive confidence enables him to conquer the world, but that doesn't mean it works.) Characters behave in inconsistent ways that undermine the plot—the murderous General Butt-Fucking Naked, for example, who early on is unafraid to shoot an innocent villager in the head or to sodomize a missionary with a holy book, but in the end is cowed by inspirational stories. The violence itself plays more like a blatant attempt to shock than an organic element of the plot, as if a page from a Quentin Tarantino script had been pasted by accident into the book, and introduces an unwelcome tone of reality that sits at odds with the relative sweetness of the rest of the production.

All that is forgivable, but the worst sin The Book of Mormon commits is to grow boring through much of its middle. Somewhere on the way to the muddle that takes Elder Price out of the spotlight, the show just stops being clever. It never exactly stops being funny in a low-level way, but neither the plot nor the jokes rises above a certain bland level of predictability. Oh, so one of the older missionaries is a repressed homosexual? Yawn. So the naive young Nabulungi (Nikki M. James) imagines Salt Lake City as a magical wonderland where the warlords are kind and there's a Red Cross on every corner? Ho hum.

The show catches fire again toward the end, after the miraculous conversion of nearly the entire village catches the attention of the Mormon mission president, who comes to congratulate the local missionaries and is treated to a hilarious production number in which the villagers rehash all the mixed-up misconceptions Elder Cunningham has taught them about the Book of Mormon. Some of this material verges on the racist, but The Book of Mormon is ultimately saved, if not redeemed, by the villagers' innate understanding that they are not being taught literal truth but rather a series of parables intended to help them process and deal with the harsh realities of their daily existence.

This final message about religion's palliative effects in a grim world did enable me to leave the theater with a smile on my face, but I still can't shake my conviction that The Book of Mormon is hardly the flawless gem so many people seem to think it is. Still, I can't deny that I had a lot of fun watching it, and the funny parts are so funny that most theatergoers will probably forgive the parts that drag.

All right, so that's my review of the production itself. But how accurately does it reflect the realities of Mormonism, and of the lives of Mormon missionaries? Well ... not all that well.

Don't get me wrong. Trey Parker and Matt Stone have done their research, at least into Mormon history and doctrine, as two rather funny numbers ("All American Prophet" and "I Believe") amply demonstrate. They've come a long way from the days of Orgazmo, their 1998 film about a Mormon missionary who becomes an accidental porn star, which was wall-to-wall stupid-funny but didn't have the glimmerings of a first clue about Mormon teachings or missionary life.

They had a much better handle on things Mormon by the time they made the infamous "All About Mormons" episode of South Park in 2003, which I gave high marks for the accuracy of its portrayal of the way the church presents its own history. book_of_mormon_elder_shunn.jpg But in the interim Parker and Stone have only somewhat improved their knowledge of the way missions work.

One of the things they get right, which matched my experience to a scary degree, is the crushing sense being exiled to a strange land for a period of time that seems so long it may as well be forever. They also nail the feeling of despair that comes from being saddled with a companion not of your choosing who doesn't share your same work ethic.

But the mechanics of missionary life they get mostly wrong. "Two by Two," for instance, the song in which the young elders at the Missionary Training Center get their assignments, makes for a fun production number, but is based on fantasy. In reality, missionaries learn where in the world they'll be sent months before they report to the MTC. They also are not normally assigned to be companions with other greenies, and certainly aren't assigned to just one companion for the full duration of their missions. New missionaries get more experienced elders as their first companions in the field, and their companions rotate every two or three months. (I had over a dozen different companions myself over the course of my mission.) And no missionary would ever be allowed to leave the MTC with as non-existent a grasp of the basics of Mormon theology as Elder Cunningham demonstrates.

Most wrong of all, though, is Elder Price's desire to serve his mission in Orlando. I have no doubt that plenty of lazy young men, hoping for two cushy years, have no greater ambition than to serve an English-speaking mission in a subtropical tourist destination, but that in no way reflects the thinking of young Mormons with ambitions to set the world on fire with their preaching. No, the glory-seekers among us (myself included) hoped for the most difficult assignments in the most exotic locales imaginable. Central America. Southeast Asia. Communist Russia (which was rumored to soon be opening to missionaries at the time I was putting my application papers in). These were the places we wanted to go. An elder as ambitious as Price would have been beside himself to get a calling to Uganda.

But if it sounds like I'm calling out the creators of The Book of Mormon for sloppiness, I'm really not. The reality of Mormonism is almost incidental to the show, which is not actually about Mormonism. Instead Mormonism is a proxy for religion itself, a safe choice for giving adherents of other faiths room to distance themselves from any critiques leveled in the production, which really aren't very deep. I can't even call The Book of Mormon a black comedy because in the end it doesn't have the conviction of its meanness. It has no interest in skewering the religious impulse, or in pushing its ideas to any absurd dark extreme. It lands sunny-side up, and is satisfied with the status quo. This, despite the lip service to naughtiness and edginess, makes The Book of Mormon a supremely conservative production, and thus perfect for Broadway success.

If I had to sum my opinion up in one sentence, I'd say that The Book of Mormon, while quite funny and entertaining, did not offend me nearly enough.

Coming to London's West End in 2013:  Book of Mormon London

Find tickets here:  Book of Mormon Tickets

And for more great shows:  London Theatre Tickets

Crossposted from Inhuman Swill
I know it's not nearly as cool as getting a carton of books from a traditional publisher, but the private printing of The Accidental Terrorist from my Magick 4 Terri auction has arrived, and I think these books turned out really darn well, if I do say so myself.

Private printing has arrived!

I've signed and numbered every copy, and I'm excited to get them out to the winners. In fact, I'm heading off to the post office right now to overnight them.

Inside the book

But this only makes a vexing question more vexing. Of the five books I ordered, I'm sending three (Nos. 1-3) to the auction winners and keeping one (No. 5) for our own bookshelf.

But what shall we do with No. 4? I've considered several different options for disposing of this volume, but none that I've quite found satisfactory. If you have any suggestions for where I should send it or what I should do with it, please let me hear them.

In the meantime, No. 4 will sit on the shelf next to No. 5, awaiting dispatch to its as-yet-undetermined proper home.

Crossposted from Inhuman Swill
I've finished designing the books that will go to the three winners of my Magick 4 Terri auction and placed my order with With a little luck, the lucky recipients will have their copies of this special private edition of The Accidental Terrorist before New Year's Day. (By the way, I decided to upgrade them to hardcover with full dust jacket. Yeah.)

Here's a sneak peek of what the cover looks like. Eventual publishers of the commercial edition, please feel free to steal my design.


Crossposted from Inhuman Swill


Dec. 2nd, 2011 01:03 pm
I was complaining about The Walking Dead a couple of weeks ago. I finally saw the mid-season finale (an oxymoron, for sure), after having somehow managed to avoid any spoilers. I have to say, it was great, it was visceral, it was shocking, it recast the entire season so far. What it did not do, though, was atone for how boring the season was up to that point. Here's hoping the remainder of the season can maintain that level of intensity, even if the characters are still more types than people.

In other follow-up news, I've been waiting for the Mormon missionaries to call me after their visit back in October, but they still haven't. I feel rejected. I feel jilted. I feel not worth saving. I feel upset that I haven't been able to invite them in and then tell them that praying out loud is not permitted under my roof.

Dammit. Maybe they found out more about me and are afraid. Maybe they just didn't like me. Oh, well, life is short.
shunn: (Elder Shunn)
They finally caught up with me. It was bound to happen eventually.

It was Sunday evening. Laura and I had only been back home for a couple of hours after a long weekend in New York City. The doorbell rang. We had placed an order for Indian food only about twenty minutes earlier, so I grabbed a fistful of the cash I'd left on the sideboard and went down to answer the door.

It wasn't our food delivery. It was a pair of well-scrubbed young men wearing dark suits and black name tags. Yep, it was the Mormon missionaries.

"Hi, I'm Elder McAlister, and this is my companion Elder Nielsen," said the first. "We're looking for Donald Shunn?"

I had a choice to make. I wasn't going to be lame and deny who I was, but I did need to decide how nice I was going to be and to what extent I would engage with them. On the one hand, I was annoyed that someone (probably but not necessarily a member of my family) had given the Church my latest address, so my name now appeared on the rolls of the local LDS ward. On the other hand, these two kids were only doing what the Church had programmed them to do, and twenty-five years ago you would have found me doing exactly the same thing. On the other other hand, I had long pictured this moment and seen myself having an open, honest discussion with missionaries about my beliefs. Thanks to my excellent agent Joe Monti, my mission memoir is currently out on submission with some major book editors, so it was high time I started getting some practice talking frankly and without rancor with people of opposing beliefs.

"That's me," I said, shaking hands with both of them. "But I go by Bill."

"Well," said Elder McAlister, "we're just going around visiting with ward members who haven't been out to church for a while, wanting to see how you're doing. We wondered if there was a time when we could come visit with you."

"I'd be happy to talk with you some time," I said. "I have to be honest with you though, I haven't been active in the Church for well over fifteen years, and in fact I actively disbelieve in it. But I don't mind talking."

I gave them my phone number and told them I remembered what it was like to be where they were standing. They seemed surprised that I'd been a missionary. I asked them where they were from, and they asked me where else I'd lived and what had brought me to Chicago. I told them I was a writer, and that in fact I'd just finished work on a book about being a missionary. It was a quick leap from there to a brief telling of my bomb threat story, which seemed to blow their minds. Elder Nielsen was surprised to learn that, after being kicked out of Canada, I had served for a couple of months in the town he was from, Yakima, Washington. All in all, I managed to keep the kneejerk hostility the Church still brings out in me under control and (I hope) out of my voice. They were nice kids, though they clearly didn't know quite what to make of me.

I didn't ever invite them inside, because Laura was getting some work done and we had dinner on the way. But I probably stood out on the porch talking with them for ten minutes or so. I wonder if they'll call to make a return appointment. If they do, I hope I don't make them too uncomfortable when they come back. I think a frank discussion would be a good learning experience for all of us.
shunn: (Elder Shunn)
Laura and I were talking over some of the difficulties I've been having this week with my revisions of The Accidental Terrorist when she gave me the absolute perfect image for the central conflict in the book. The main character, in her view, is a fly trapped in a spiderweb, struggling to free itself with only the vaguest notion of the nature of its predicament.

(See, I'm the fly, and the LDS Church is... Yeah.)

This image is so spot-on, so apt to something I was struggling to articulate to myself, that I wish I could somehow work it into the book. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately, since I don't want to be too heavy-handed about it), I'm pretty much constrained by the reality of my experiences during the six months of my life that the book covers, and those six months did not include any spiders.

No, the spider didn't become a factor in my mission until five or six months after the events of the book. I was serving in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, by then. My companion and I lived rent-free in a small house in the middle of a wheatfield owned by some local Mormons. We were a little bored in that town, and one thing my companion did to pass the time was adopt a little spider that lived in a web in the window frame of one of the empty back rooms. He would go around the house catching flies and dropping them into the web, then watch the spider kill them. This was the best-fed spider in northern Idaho. It grew so quickly that after about a month its web (which it unstrung and re-spun every day) was so strong that you could strum it like a guitar and it wouldn't break. The spider itself was as big as the first joint of my thumb.

When that companion eventually got transferred out of Bonners Ferry and a new one took his place, the two of us decided that the spider had to go. It was so big that neither one of us dared to get close enough either to relocate it or to smash it to death. Instead, we used a cigarette lighter and a can of hairspray to flambé it from a safe distance. We could hear the individual strands of the web pop in the flames. The spider itself shriveled up and crackled with an awful sound.

I have several other animal stories from that Bonners Ferry house, involving mice and bats and such, but they're even more disturbing than this one so I'm going to save them for the sequel. The most disappointing animal story, though, was that we slept in one morning and missed seeing a huge moose in our front yard. The nearest neighbors had tried to call us, but apparently the phone didn't wake us up.

Where did this post start? Oh, yeah. With my wife being awesome.


Feb. 17th, 2011 10:03 am
shunn: (Elder Shunn)
Today my father would have been 75 years old, had he not succumbed to complications from prostate cancer nearly three years ago. I want to post something about the old man, but the closest thing I have to a remembrance at hand is the second chapter from the latest in-progress revision of my memoir. It's not exactly complimentary on the whole, but it does attempt to trace the trials my father went through trying to secure a better future for his family, which I believe he succeeded at—even if he died doubting it.

By the way, I was in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago and I hunted down the house in Highland Park where we lived until I was six. My mother had warned me that I really didn't want to visit that neighborhood, but since when have I ever listened to my parents' advice? Anyway, the neighborhood was just fine—quiet, even. The house, perched on hill on Aldama Street between Avenues 53 and 54, was much, much smaller than I remembered. And there were parrots squawking in a tall tree overhead.

The Accidental Terrorist: Chapter Two )
shunn: (Elder Shunn)
Having finished the first draft of a novel a few months back, I am now slowly but surely whittling my memoir, The Accidental Terrorist, down to its fighting weight. This means chopping out certain scenes I'm very fond of, but which don't fit the focus and tone of the revised manuscript.

Here's one of those scenes I'm sorry to see go, surgically excised and preserved under glass for your inspection.

October 1986

"You want to see my what?" said Elder Vickers, assuming that expression of shock and disgust he feigned so well.

"Your tonsils," I said. "Come on, Vickers, I know you keep them in your closet."

It was our second full week at the Missionary Training Center. I had accompanied Vickers on his daily trip to the main building for our mail. As district leader he had the only key to the box, and he'd been sorting through the day's haul as we walked. He was a short, barrel-chested young man with freckles, ruddy cheeks, and a crown of unruly blond curls that would have made Norman Rockwell weep.

"What gave you such a ridiculous idea?" he said. From the sharpness in his speeded-up drawl I almost expected him to add "Soldier!"

I gave him a sly grin. "Munoz told me." Elder Munoz was one of Vickers's roommates.

Vickers harrumphed. "He has said this to deceive you, and I would advise you to get out of his employ."

I laughed. The rest of our district seemed to resent Vickers as a drill sergeant with a willfully inflexible stick up his ass. I liked the irreverent humor he dropped into his remarks, though, and when I returned it in kind we'd begun to bond. To us, the pinnacle of drollery was to lard our speech with out-of-context phrases from the temple endowment ceremony, in which we participated once or twice a week as part of the MTC routine. The ceremony, which we attended across the street at the Provo Temple, took the form of an anachronistic mystery play depicting the creation of the earth and the fall of man. Vickers's line was one the Apostle Peter delivered to a Protestant minister who had been preaching false doctrines he learned from Lucifer.

"No, seriously, Elder," I said. "Come on."

Elder Vickers sighed. "Yes, I keep my tonsils in a jar in my closet."

"Wow! Why?"

"I don't know, really," he said, shrugging. "When I had my tonsillectomy, the doctor asked me if I wanted to keep them, and I said yes. That was years ago. I've had that same jar all this time."

"Can I see them?"

He looked at me coldly. "We do not satisfy men's curiosity in that manner." This was Peter's rebuke to the minister when he asked for a sign that Peter was a true messenger from God.

"We commend you for your integrity," I said, like Peter to Adam when he refuses to trade what is sacred for money. "But what's it going to hurt?" I asked. "Elder Munoz saw them."

Vickers sighed. "I see that this must be so." Eve to Lucifer, when presented with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. "All right, then. Come on."

It was later that week that I happened to fall in step with an elder named Preston as I walked from the cafeteria back to the dorm after lunch. Preston's district shared our dormitory. They were a week younger than we, but far more unruly. After our district had played a very mild practical joke on them on their second night at the MTC, they had retaliated against us with a full-bore water assault. Preston was the worst of the lot, a tall, porcine, marshmallowy elder with a nasty laugh and a mean streak a mile wide.

Preston and I chatted amiably beneath the brilliant blue sky as we walked. He seemed a nice enough fellow one on one, if a little quick to take offense at innocent statements.

Entering our dorm, Preston turned his moonlike face to me and asked, "What's the deal with that Elder Vickers, anyway? He just won't let up. Why's he such a hardass?"

I almost broke out in a grin. I saw right off what I had to do; my enemy had unwittingly delivered himself into my hands. Silently I thanked God for this marvelous gift. I almost felt bad for what I was about to do, but not quite.

I clapped Preston heartily on the shoulder. His white shirt jiggled. "I know he can be a real pain, Elder," I said, "but you have to cut Vickers some slack. He's been through some traumatic experiences in his day, and they're not the kind of thing you just walk away from smiling."

"Oh, yeah?" said Preston, squinting. "Like what?"

I furrowed my brow. "I . . . I don't know if I should really be telling you about it. I mean, anything that leaves you less a man than you were before—well, that's pretty personal stuff. If Elder Vickers ever found out I said anything, my ass would be grass."

Preston raised his arm to the square. "Oh, I'll never tell. Scout's honor."

"Swear on your life?"


I thought a moment, then nodded. "Okay. Here it is." We had reached the bottom of the stairs, and I held the handle of the door to our corridor without opening it. I lowered my voice, forcing Preston to lean in close. "When Elder Vickers was seventeen, they diagnosed him with testicular cancer."

"Test—" Preston's eyes grew satisfyingly wide. "You mean his balls? He got ball cancer?"

"Shh, keep it down," I said. "Yes, he got cancer of the balls. They tried treating him all kinds of different ways— chemicals, radiation, what have you—but none of it worked. The cancer kept growing, and it spread from one testicle to the other."

Preston shook his head. "Oh, man."

"Yeah. Finally, there was nothing else the doctors could do. They said the testicles had to come out."

"No way!"

"Yep. So Elder Vickers goes under the knife, and when he wakes up again, voilà!—no more cancer. But no more balls, either."

My whopping friend took a deep breath. "Oh, my heck."

"You got that right. It's a miracle Elder Vickers is here on a mission today, but he's still just learning to deal with the fact that he's never going to have some of the experiences the rest of us take for granted—like having children of his own. Never gonna happen."

"Oh, man, that's a rotten deal," said Preston, chewing the inside of his cheek.

"Yeah, so when he starts giving you a hard time, just understand that he's not really mad at you at all, he's just—"

A spitish light dawned in Elder Preston's eyes. "Hey, wait a minute. You're friends with Elder Vickers. How do I know you're telling the truth?"

I shrugged. "I can prove it," I said.

He squinted. "You're not going to try to get me to feel his nads or anything, are you? 'Cause I'm not going to do that."

"Nah, nothing like that," I said. "I'll show you his testicles. Come on." I opened the door from the stairwell.

"Wait wait wait," said Preston, grabbing my arm with a clammy hand. "You'll what?"

"I'll show you his testicles." When he just kept staring at me, I sighed and shut the door again. "Look, he was pretty attached to his nuts. When the operation was over, he asked if he could keep them. So the doctors put them in formaldehyde and gave him the jar. He keeps it with him wherever he goes."

"You're lying."

"I am not. The jar's on a shelf in his closet. Come on, I'll show you."

As I led the somewhat reluctant Elder Preston down the hall, we ran into Elder Munoz. "Hey," I said, "is anyone in your room?"

"No, I just left," said Munoz. "No one's there."

"Could you let us in?" I asked, winking so only Munoz could see. "I've gotta show Vickers's, er, testicles to Elder Preston."

"Oh, yeah, those." He nodded, smiling faintly. "Sure, no problem."

Munoz opened his room for us and stood aside. "Just be sure it's locked when you leave. Enjoy the show."

I flipped on the lights, then positioned Elder Preston in front of Elder Vickers's closet. "You know, Shunn," he said, "I really do believe you." Tiny pearls of sweat stood out on his forehead. "You don't have to—"

"Don't be a pussy, Elder. Think of what Vickers went through. The least you can do is stand there for ten seconds and look at what he faces every day of his life."

I grasped the handle of the closet and slowly, ever so slowly, eased open the door. The crack of light falling inside widened, curving against the glass surface of a regular Mason jar at about chest level. A yellowish fluid filled the jar, and suspended in the fluid like a pair of blind eyes were two lumps of gray tissue, each about the size of a strawberry. Obscene and phlegmy, the tonsils stared out of the closet with mute reproach, devoid of any power but the power to shock, the power to silence.

I looked at Elder Preston. I watched the blood drain from his face. I watched him open his mouth to speak: a fat, wet hole appearing in a face as gray as Elder Vickers's tonsils, making no sound.

He pointed at the jar, and slowly his face turned toward me. "That—" he said. "That—that—that—"

Laughter bubbled up inside me like oil from a highly pressurized deposit far underground. The look on Preston's face had sunk the well, and now I feared that if I opened my mouth I'd release a gusher. "As promised," I said, bowing my head and covering my mouth, but the damage was already done. I wish I could say I kept a straight face, but I didn't. Giggles shook my chest like a California earthquake, and my knees buckled under the recoil of an explosive guffaw.

Preston stared at me, then back at the jar, then back at me again. "Hey, wait a second!" he said, his face turning a mottled red. "Those aren't his balls!"

Sliding down the wall to the floor, I barely managed to squeak out "Tonsils!" between shuddering breaths and debilitating laughter. Elder Preston clenched his fists and stomped out of the room like the Incredible Hulk leaving the scene of his latest misadventure.

When I could finally breathe again, I hauled myself up to my feet and locked the door behind me, happier than I'd felt since coming to the MTC. Revenge is so sweet, if they'd included it on the dessert table in the cafeteria they never could have kept enough on hand to satisfy the demand.

This excerpt can be heard in its original context in Episode 25 of the Accidental Terrorist podcast.
shunn: (Elder Shunn)
The great folks at Essay Fiesta have posted video of the memoir excerpt I read for them at the Book Cellar on April 19th. This is a segment from The Accidental Terrorist called "Gluttons for Punishment":

(Damn, that was over my time limit. Thank God I didn't exceed the YouTube limit of ten minutes.)

Essay Fiesta is a monthly reading series that benefits the Howard Brown Health Center, hosted by Keith Ecker and Alyson Lyon. Please come out to the Book Cellar in Chicago on the third Monday of every month to support the series.
I had a great time yesterday afternoon doing "Doing Time with Ron Kuby" on Air America. He had very kind things to say about The Accidental Terrorist, and he held me over for an unplanned extra segment. I think it went pretty well, though I was vibrating in the X-ray band. Here's audio:

Segment 1  (10:35)

Segment 2  (07:49)
In 2006 and 2007, over the course of about 30 episodes of my "ShunnCast," I read my unpublished memoir The Accidental Terrorist, the story of how I, as a young naive Mormon missionary, came to be arrested for terrorism and permanently banned from Canada. The response was enthusiastic and overwhelming. Each chapter was downloaded thousands of times, and the memoir continues to be a great draw at my website. If you've listened before, I thank you for your support.

The Accidental Terrorist Now I'm serializing the book again, from the beginning. Why? As popular as those episodes were, the sometimes lengthy bracketing chatter about other aspects of my life and work made it impossible for listeners after the fact to sit back with every chapter and listen to the book straight through from start to finish.

This new podcast will change that. Starting April 7th and continuing throughout 2009, I'll post a new chapter from The Accidental Terrorist every Tuesday morning. Most of these will be excerpted from the original "ShunnCast" episodes, but a handful in which I've made significant revisions since the first podcasts will be newly rerecorded.

Most Friday mornings, I'll post a short "Setting the Record Straight" installment, also excerpted from the original episodes, in which I'll talk about what elements of Tuesday's chapter may have been slightly exaggerated in the writing of the book, and which others hew close to reality.

By then end of the year, you'll be able to listen to The Accidental Terrorist straight through, without any editorial interruptions from me. But don't worry—if you like the longer, more chatty episodes, I'm continuing to do that in my occasional "ShunnCast" outings, along with readings of short stories and other materials.

The premier episode of the reconstituted Accidental Terrorist podcast is up and available. I hope you have fun listening, whether or not it's the first time.
Epidode #53 of "ShunnCast" is now available, in which Bill combs through the dusty vaults of his cassette collection to unearth a musical gem from his missionary days that might more profitably have remained buried—"The Wenatchee Rap" by No Parking Zone.

See also [ profile] shunncast.

Epidode #52 of "ShunnCast" is now available, in which Bill reads a restored and revised chapter from the brand-new draft of his memoir The Accidental Terrorist.

See also [ profile] shunncast.

Epidode #49 of "ShunnCast" is now available, in which Bill, in an outtake from THE ACCIDENTAL TERRORIST, recounts the fate of the modest vinyl collection he'd amassed before leaving on his mission. Also, freethought is vigorously defended, in the context of gay weddings and dying fathers.

See also [ profile] shunncast.

Epidode #48 of "ShunnCast" is now available, in which Bill attempts to convince you to order his brand-new six-pack chapbook—only five bucks!—and a definition for the term "chapbook" itself is sought.

See also [ profile] shunncast.

Epidode #47 of "ShunnCast" is now available, in which Bill reflects on sex and the modern Mormon missionary, with illustrations from his own post-Canada mission service. Live from Balticon, more or less!

See also [ profile] shunncast.
A nibble comes in, one admiring but not entirely won over, and yet again you find yourself crafting a book proposal to suit a particular audience of one. You like this audience of one, and you take their comments seriously, but you resolve not to internalize those comments at the expense of your own vision for the book. It's hard work, especially with a novel on hold for a week or so, but at last you find a way back inside the material. What comes out is a blend of the new, the old, and the very old. The one temptation you can't resist is the temptation to throw a piece of it out there the moment it rolls off your virtual platen.

The new new memoir chapter two )
Speaking of missionary memoirs, Christopher Bigelow has published a very fine personal essay over at Popcorn Popping. Despite my cheeky subject line, it's a revealing read and you should check it out.

Why do they call it Popcorn Popping? It comes from a favorite Mormon children's song, "Popcorn Popping on the Apricot Tree."

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