Inhuman Swill : Mormonism

I never expected it would take so long to make this announcement, but my Mormon missionary memoir The Accidental Terrorist will be published by Sinister Regard in 2015.

Although it might end up with a different title. And the cover definitely won't look like the one below. And Sinister Regard is actually me.

I'm very excited, nevertheless.

The Accidental Terrorist (charity auction edition)
It's hard for me to pin down exactly when I started work on this book. The events it chronicles took place mostly between September 1986 and March 1987, when I was a Mormon missionary serving in Alberta. But before that time span had even ended, I was already learning to tell bits and pieces of the story to an audience. In 1988, I told the full story to a few fellow missionaries—with a tape recorder running. Here's an excerpt, in which you can hear me at age 20 with my Utah accent still fully intact:

In 1993 I started relating the story in email to a non-Mormon acquaintance, but the telling required so much backstory that it eventually grew to three dozen installments. I soon began posting these chapters to a science fiction roundtable on GEnie, where they generated plenty of discussion and interest. In 1995, when I had my first personal web site, I started posting the chapters again, and they've remained a perennial draw.

But it wasn't until early in 1999 that I began trying to spin these slapdash reminiscences into an actual, substantive book. My agent at the time immediately set about trying to sell the partial manuscript, and my first blog post about the submission process dates from October 2000. There followed a long series of outright rejections and heart-breaking near-misses, not to mention a terrorist attack in 2001 that rendered a light-hearted book about a bomb threat virtually unpublishable, and then a major scandal in 2006 that nearly killed the market for non-celebrity memoirs altogether.

That year, frustrated, I began serializing the book as a regular segment of my personal podcast. Again, it went over very well, attracting a lot of attention. In 2009 I cut-and-pasted those segments into their own standalone podcast, again attracting plenty of notice.

All through this, I was frequently asked when the podcast would become available in book form. But despite the heroic efforts of one agent after another, traditional publishers continued to pass on the manuscript—sometimes in the most effusive terms possible.

The Accidental Terrorist (podcast edition)
Eventually, my kind and wise agent Barry Goldblatt sat me down. He knew how important this book was to me, and how much the more than fifteen years of effort I'd put into it was costing me. "We know there's an audience for this book," he said, "even if no editor can see that. You need to get it out there. I think it's time for you to self-publish."

Laura and I had been thinking about that ourselves for quite sometime. The precise timetable is not yet set, but you can probably look for both print and ebook publication in the spring of 2015, maybe summer. Never fear. It is happening.

We're taking time to get everything right because I don't want to put out a substandard product. We've hired a very respected book editor as our, um, book editor. I'll get my first round of edits from her right at Christmas—my own gift to myself! After another round of edits, we'll run it through a professional gauntlet of copyediting, book design, and art. Who knows? We'll probably even change the title back to one of my early favorites—Missionary Man.

I know some of you have been waiting for this book for a very long time. You've probably given up hope that you would ever see it. It's been through plenty of different permutations over the years, and I plan to give you the best version I'm capable of producing. I hope you look forward to getting it half as much as I look forward to giving it to you.

Thank you so much for hanging in there with me.

To make sure you stay in the loop about all news of my upcoming memoir, please sign up for my email newsletter.

I've told this story many times, in many ways. This particular version was written for The First Time: First Crime, an evening of readings at Second City's Up Comedy Club in Chicago on April 17, 2013. I read it again at Tuesday Funk #61 on September 3, 2013, and later posted it as an answer on Quora (to the question "What are you banned from? Why?") and as an essay on Medium (where it became an Editor's Pick). As long as it was available for free in those places, I figured it ought to have a home here too. So here it is. Happy Canada Day.

They caught up with me in the men's room of a bus station in Great Falls, Montana.

Now, the fact that "they" were after me might lead you to presume that I was running from the law, that the cops or other authorities were hot on my trail, but that's not the case. My felony was still two months in the future at that point, though I was on the lam.

I was on the lam from the Mormon Church.

It was the last week of 1986. I was nineteen years old, and I'd spent the past three months in the dreary oil town of Brooks, Alberta, Canada, the first posting of my two-year assignment as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I never wanted to serve a mission, but I grew up in Utah, in a devout family, and to not do so would have meant admitting to my parents and my community and my church leaders that I just wasn't that into Mormonism. I had college to finish. I had novels I was burning to write.

But I also had shame, so like a good boy I put in my mission application papers, hoping for a plum assignment like Brazil or Sweden or Japan, someplace I could at least learn a foreign language and rack up some cool life points. Instead, Canada--and not even the part where they spoke French. Western Canada. For a bright Mormon kid from Utah, this was almost as humiliating an assignment as Idaho. But that's where the grayhairs in Salt Lake City said God needed me.

Missionary life, if you're curious, was horrible. Knocking on doors for twelve hours a day in miserable weather. No television, no movies, no newspapers, no books but the Bible and the Book of Mormon. No dating. No phone calls home. The constant presence of your assigned partner, your so-called "companion," with whom you spend every waking moment of every single day, lest one or the other of you should fall into temptation. Oh, and always referring to each other by your title, "Elder," instead of by your names.

After three months of this, I'd had it. I was stir-crazy and depressed, and I'd figured out that they call it "serving" a mission because it's a lot like "serving" a prison sentence. I wanted to go home, but I knew if I brought it up with our mission president in Calgary, President Tuttle, he'd just find a way to talk me into staying. So, a few days after Christmas, I snuck off to the bus station in the wee hours of the morning and made my escape.

That bus ride--west to Calgary and then south to the border, running for my freedom, running from my duty to God--was one of the most thrilling days of my life. Once my absence became known, the Church activated its remarkable emergency communications network--invaluable in times of natural disaster--to put out an A.P.B. on a fugitive missionary whose only crimes were wanting to read science fiction novels and make out with his girlfriend.

At the border crossing, I managed to avoid the two missionaries they sent to intercept me as I transferred from one bus to the next. I felt like a real super-spy. I felt like James Bond.

But that evening in Great Falls--well, I had a bad feeling as the gray-haired man in the black leather jacket trailed me through the bus station toward the men's room. To show you how useless I am in stressful situations, I went into the men's room anyway, because while James Bond never seems to need to pee, I really did, and I didn't see an alternative.

Sure enough, as I was taking care of business at the urinal, this man in his black leather jacket came in, leaned against the wall, and said, "Elder Shunn?"

To make a long story short, this man was the local Mormon stake president--roughly comparable to a Catholic bishop--and he was there to convince me, if not to resume my mission service, then at least to go back to Calgary and request an honorable discharge from my mission.

Look, it's hard for a Mormon kid to say no to authority figures, which is why I didn't want to talk to my mission president in the first place. Which is all by way of saying that I did go back to Calgary, with delusions of that honorable discharge dancing in my head. To my credit, I managed to hold out against President Tuttle's onslaught of compassionate brainwashing--and that of the people like my parents whom he put me on the phone with--for all of about five hours.

"Oh, Elder Shunn," he exclaimed after I'd caved, "I'm overjoyed at how the Spirit has touched your heart! Oh, and I want you to know that you are in no way on probation or in trouble with me for going AWOL. No, the one who's in trouble is that lazy companion of yours in Brooks who failed to do everything in his power to keep you from getting on that bus in the first place."

Now let's fast-forward two months. I've been reassigned to Calgary, where I'm doing pretty well, with plenty of other missionaries around to keep the loneliness and depression at bay. I'm actually starting to have a reasonably okay time.

It's late February. I'm on temporary assignment with a missionary I'll call Elder Finn. Both our regular companions are district leaders, and they're off somewhere at a mission leadership conference with President Tuttle and thirty or forty other district and zone leaders.

(If this sounds like sales terminology, by the way, that's probably not an accident.)

It's nearly evening, and I'm at Calgary International Airport, where Elder Finn has forced me to accompany him. He's been planning this excursion for weeks, planning for the day when all the mission's most diligent elders are tied up at a conference, and when he's partnered with the infamous Elder Shunn--that one who tried to run away.

Elder Finn, who's only been out on his mission for four months, is planning to fly home, to Sacramento. He's done.

But there's one thing Finn hasn't counted on. He thought I was the kind of missionary who'd help him. He thought, based on my past behavior, that I'd stand by and give him time to get away before calling President Tuttle.

He miscalculated.

I spent the entire drive out to the airport trying to talk Elder Finn into staying on his mission. He wasn't having any of it, so now I've slipped away from him in the crowded terminal, and I'm desperately dialing numbers at a pay phone. President Tuttle is not at his office, of course, and none of the missionaries whose numbers I can dredge up from memory are home either. The clock is ticking down to Finn's departure. I have this crazy, half-formed backup plan--but am I willing to do everything in my power to keep my companion from leaving?

I rip open the phone book before I can talk myself out of my scheme. I look up Western Airlines and find what I recognize as a local number. I plug my quarter into the slot. My hand shakes as I dial.

The line picks up on the first ring. "Western Air Cargo," says a young man. "How can I help you?"

I take a deep breath. Slowly, clearly, and distinctly, I say, "There's a bomb in a suitcase on Flight Seven-eighty-nine."

And I hang up.

I wish I had time to tell you what happened next--how I watched airport security quietly mobilize, how the plane in question was grounded, evacuated, and searched, how the Royal Canadian Mounted Police--yes, the fucking Mounties--caught up with me, how I was convicted of felony public mischief and sentenced to jail, and how to this day I'm forbidden to set foot in Canada. Oh, right, and how Elder Finn was one of the few passengers that night who actually managed to reach his final destination. That's all a story for a different day.

What I will tell you is what still unsettles me at night and keeps me awake, which is how easily faith and circumstance can warp a rash impulse into an act of terror. Any of us could be standing on that brink without suspecting it, as I well know.

My first R-rated movie

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Reading this edition of "The Big Question" at got me thinking about the first R-rated movie I ever saw. The film itself—a Michael Douglas thriller called The Star Chamber—was not so memorable, but the circumstances around my viewing of it are, in retrospect, amusing.

The Star Chamber
When I was growing up, the LDS Church strongly cautioned parents not to let their children see R-rated movies, so that was exactly the rule my parents established for us. I followed it, too, though not always happily.

I don't remember what it was about The Star Chamber that made me willing to break that rule. Since I was close to turning sixteen, it was probably just time for it to happen. My friend David, who was a little younger than I was, kind of wanted to see it too, so he asked his parents to take us. So, it was time plus opportunity, I suppose.

(I had seen R-rated movies already, but on video at friends' houses, not in an actual movie theater.)

We had to drive about ten miles north from Kaysville to Ogden to catch the movie. "I have only one condition for this," David's mother told me en route. She was an elementary school teacher, and in fact had already taught two of my sisters and was about to have a third start her class. She was a good Mormon woman, and my parents thought the world of her. "You can never, ever tell your parents I took you to an R-rated movie. Okay?"

I agreed, and getting away with something like that with the help of my sisters' grade-school teacher probably made the movie seem way cooler than it really was. Thank goodness for teachers.

This all happened thirty years ago, in August 1983. Interestingly, it was 1985 before my (sort of) hometown of Kaysville, Utah, ever saw an R-rated movie of its own. Kaysville had only one movie theater, the policy of which was to show nothing with a rating over PG (or maybe PG-13 by then).

It was huge news, then, when the theater decided to change its policy and show Beverly Hills Cop. The local Mormon congregations organized moms to come out and picket against the corruption of its child-safe, down-home entertainment venue.

Is it any wonder everyone seemed so fucked up at my 20-year high school reunion? I say that with all good humor.

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."

"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.

Back in September, I took advantage of the chance to support a very worthy-seeming Kickstarter project—helping to fund the completion of a documentary called Mormon Movie.

The director, Xan Aranda, also made festival favorite Andrew Bird: Fever Year, but this new project is something more personal. Check out this preview reel to see what I mean:

The Kickstarter campaign is long done, but you can still help support Mormon Movie at The Hideout this weekend in Chicago. Just buy a ticket to their third "They Shoot Indies, Don't They? Dance Derby Fundraiser Spectacular" and show up to dance and win prizes. It all gets started Saturday, February 2, at 7:00 pm at The Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia. Tickets are just $10 in advance, $12 at the door.


I'd be there myself, except it's bowling night.

ep29cover600x600.jpg My good friend Cesar Torres recently had me on Episode 29 of "The Labyrinth," his fine podcast about the strange and unusual.

We talked about my Mormon upbringing, how I tried to avoid writing a novel, what not to do when you're learning to write, and of course the strangest thing that ever happened to me. If could go back and do it over again, I'd tell myself to slow down and take a breath, but you can listen to my exhausting rush of words here:

Cesar and I are in a writing group called Error of Judgment together. He has also interviewed our fellow workshoppers Eden Robins and Holly McDowell, plus lots of other fascinating people. Check it out.

Le mot juiced

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I read the following essay, which appears in somewhat different form in the epilogue to The Accidental Terrorist, in the Essay Fiesta series at The Book Cellar in Chicago, on December 21, 2009.

There is no worse feeling than, five minutes after some unpleasant confrontation has left you tongue-tied, humiliated and confused, smacking yourself on the forehead and exclaiming, "Oh, my God! That's what I should have said!"

This is not that kind of a story. This is the story of how I once delivered the perfect rejoinder, in the moment, when it counted. I tell it not to demonstrate how smart, suave, or clever I am, but because it so rarely happens that way with me. In fact, this may be the only story of its kind I have.

This happened in December 2003, at a Christmas party my wife Laura and I threw at our apartment in Queens, New York. Our parties, if I do say so, were legendary, always with an interesting mix of people, and always with good booze, and plenty of it.

Among the many invitees were my old, old friend Katrina and her new husband Bernard. Katrina and I had gone to high school together in Utah, dated seriously for a while afterward, and stayed in touch over the intervening years. Bernard was Dutch, and nine years her junior. They met in graduate school at the University of Fairbanks, where Katrina finished a master's degree in microbiology. They had just moved to Connecticut and taken jobs with a big pharmaceutical company. Our Christmas party was my first time meeting Bernard. He struck me as a nice enough fellow when I took his coat and hat at the door, if a little reticent. I put it down to the nerves you get at a party where you don't know anyone.

But an hour of sampling our beverage offerings loosened Bernard's tongue considerably. Did I say "sampling" our offerings? A better word might have been "plundering."

I was talking with a small group of friends in a corner of the kitchen when the young Dutchman—a newly minted doctor of chemical engineering—came sauntering over and inserted himself in the conversation. In a slurred accent, he said, "You know what I just found out that I did not know before? I found out in the car on the way down here. This guy here"—he indicated me with the wineglass in his hand—"he used to be engaged to my wife."

I looked around the small group I'd been chatting with. It included my long-time friend Bob, and also my friend Elizabeth, who is blind.

"Well, this is awkward," I said.

"Yeah," Bernard went on, "he like got engaged to her at some airport."

This was true. It was the Salt Lake International Airport, seventeen years earlier. I was about to get on a plane and leave for two years as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—the Mormons. Katrina and I had only been dating for a few weeks at the time, but we had fallen desperately in love—as people often do when an attraction manifests and the time to act on it is short. I wanted her to wait for me while I was away saving souls in the wilds of . . . Canada, and she had been dropping big hints that a certain question might serve to seal that deal.

I didn't like the intent look on Bernard's face, nor his belligerent tone. I hadn't been in a fight since junior high (Jason Peterson), but I really didn't want Elizabeth caught in the middle if things were about to turn violent. I tried to play it casual.

"That was a really long time ago," I said. "We were kids. I was nineteen."

"Yeah," said Bernard, "and my wife was twenty."

"Time to change the subject, Bill," said Bob, who among other jobs had worked as a merchant seaman. "You're only digging a deeper hole."

"Can you believe this?" Bernard said to the group at large, spreading his arms and sloshing some of his wine on the floor. "I only just found out. That's a pretty big thing."

I suffer, I'm afraid, from the delusion that reason and calm words can actually make a difference in the world. "Not really, it's not," I said in an offhand tone. "It didn't mean anything. To Mormons, getting engaged is like a pastime. It's a sport, it's just what you do. It's not the same as for other people."

This, also, was true. Mormons so heavily stress finding a mate and getting married that women are considered old maids at 21. But by the same token, engagements made under that intense pressure can also be rather fragile. I myself was engaged no less than five more times before it finally took, which didn't even match my father's record of seven engagements, one marriage.

Of course, by the time I did get married, I had long abandoned the LDS faith, as you might have deduced from the copious alcohol at our Christmas party. Which had somehow gotten me into this tense and uncomfortable conversation.

Bernard was undaunted by my footnotes to his pronouncements. Unfazed, he addressed the group at large, unsteady on his feet. "You know what else I found out? There was something about a ring, this ring—made out of wrapping paper?"

I looked around the group again. "Foil," I said. "It was the foil wrapper from a stick of chewing gum."

I was nineteen, had never lived away from home, and was about to embark on a two-year experiment in poverty. No way I could afford a real ring. So when I got down on one knee in front of Katrina in that airport departure lounge, I pulled out a foil gum wrapper folded twice lengthwise, wrapped it around her ring finger to size it, tore off the excess length, and fastened the ends together with a piece of Scotch tape I had stuck to the ATM card in my wallet. Voila! Instant engagement ring.

Of course, it was worth about as much as I'd paid for the gum. I came home two years later only to have Katrina tell me that she'd met someone else while I was away. (That ended up being her first husband, whom I'll call . . . Jerkface.)

"Yeah, yeah, that was it," said Bernard, wagging a finger at me. "A gum wrapper. And you know what else?" He leaned in close enough for me to gag on his breath, but without lowering his voice any. "She still has it. She still has that ring."

I was stunned, completely stunned, but I tried not to let it show as I delivered my verbal judo flip, my coup de grâce.

"That's nothing, Bernard," I said, patting him on the shoulder. "I still have the gum."

For a second there, Bernard looked like he believed me. Then everyone laughed good-naturedly, and he did too. The situation was defused. Bernard wandered peacefully away in search of other entertainment.

"You really dodged a bullet there, pal," Bob told me.

As I watched poor Bernard drift around the party showing people his stomach tattoo, I realized that I probably had. Back in 1988, that is, when Katrina broke up with me.

To follow up on my post from Friday, the latest issue of Rolling Stone features an article by Mikal Gilmore called "Mitt Romney and the Ghosts of Mormon History." It provides an excellent overview of how the Mormon Church has drifted away and distanced itself from its founding philosophical ideals, and how Romney has done the same with his own family's legacy. Here's a great passage:

When Romney veers from liberal to conservative to moderate stands, what he makes plain is that the world he is in, but not truly part of, is the political world. The shifting is a sleight of hand, like Joseph Smith's magic, a means to an end. That end is higher attainment in the big payoff, the eternal world. As a result, expecting Romney to be accountable to a secular morality is to misunderstand him. That's part of the Mormon hubris, and it's what grants him the right to withhold specifics about both his political vision and his deeper beliefs. But if you hold yourself apart from the world, how can you understand those who do not? And how can they ever understand you?
Gilmore was born into a troubled Mormon famly, and his grasp of the church's history is incisive. I'll link to the article if it ever appears online, which I hope it will in the next couple of weeks.

Mikal Gilmore also wrote the excellent memoir Shot in the Heart, about his relationship with his brother Gary, the executed murderer, and their relationship with the church and its murky doctrine of blood atonement. Dark, dark, dark, but highly recommended.

Referring to his fluid political positions, a number of commentators of late have been making statements to the effect that the only thing Mitt Romney seems to believe in is that he should be president. That got me thinking about how such a belief might have arisen, and how it might explain all the shifty flip-flopping we've seen over the course of the presidential campaign—and, in fact, the whole of Romney's political career.

Mormons believe that God has an individual plan for every one of us. This is not to say that they believe in predestination, an idea that would play havoc with their crucial belief in free will. Mormons instead believe in the doctrine of foreordination, in which God has specific tasks in mind for each of us to accomplish in this life, but with the actual accomplishment of them being dependent upon our own faith and diligence.

romney-cross.jpg Another thing Mormons believe in is personal revelation. This means that if we have a problem or a question or a goal, we can turn to God in prayer after sincere consideration and ask for direction. God, we are told, will answer either by causing a confusion to come upon us that makes us forget the thing that is wrong or by affirming through a burning in the bosom that the thing is right. (See Doctrine & Covenants 9:7-9.) No good Latter-day Saint should undertake any major pursuit without having gone through this process of spiritual confirmation.

But this is a tricky doctrine. When I was growing up, I myself was able to convince myself that God approved of many different courses of action that probably weren't so good for me, simply by praying about them persistently and feverishly enough. And this is where Romney's belief that he should be president comes in. I have no doubt that, being a faithful Mormon and in fact a Mormon leader, he prayed long and hard about whether or not to pursue this office. The fact that he threw his hat so firmly into the ring is proof that he received his spiritual confirmation.

In other words, Romney must believe that running for president is what God wants him to do, that it is in fact God's plan for him. This belief could trump any need to have a detailed and specific policy plan. He'll say whatever it takes to get into office because that is where God needs him to be.

One of the great heroes of Mormonism is the Book of Mormon prophet Nephi (either a fictional character or a real human being, depending on your point of view on these things), who was charged by God with obtaining certain scriptural records from the keeping of a bad old fellow named Laban. God needed Nephi to get those records, and anything Nephi had to do to accomplish this was fine—up to an including lying and murder. (See The Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 3 & 4, and specifically this passage.) (By the way, the same sort of anything-is-okay-because-I'm-righteous philosophy justifies every horrible action committed by another fictional character created by a prominent Mormon—Ender Wiggin of Ender's Game.)

Mormonism is steeped in this idea. What I really worry about, to get right down to it, is that Romney believes not only that God wants him to be president, but that there is some specific crisis coming which he is the only leader capable of meeting. It doesn't matter what this crisis may be. Mitt himself probably has no inkling yet of that. But when the time comes he will recognize it, or will think he does, and he will do what he thinks God wills.

That's what really scares me—that where Mitt Romney himself may have no plan, his God surely does. And there's no way for us as voters to know what that may turn out to be.

Mitt Romney's comment about "binders full of women" during the debate the other night could not have been more unfortunate, especially considering his family's history of polygamy. Anything that inadvertently conjures up images of the young women in Roman Grant's "joy books" on Big Love is probably not a place Mittens wanted to go...

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