29

            

So there's this meme going around on Facebook where you give someone an age and they write about their life that year. I was given 29.



29 ... 1996-1997. Probably one of my most transformative yet miserable years. It was my second year living in NYC, my second year out of the Mormon church, and everything about life in the city was exciting. I landed the job that year, at N2K Entertainment, that introduced me to some of the best friends of my life and set me on the path to success as a web developer. My desperate financial situation began to turn around. I was plowing like mad through books on Mormon history, gaining the foundation I needed to eventually write my memoir, and gaining as reputation as one of the angriest and most outspoken ex-Mormons on the web. But I was also living in Brooklyn with a sociopathic girlfriend who gave me none of the support I needed to get any writing done. That should have been the year I threw her out, but I was still insecure enough to think I wasn't going to be able to make it in New York on my own. The end of that year, my 30th birthday party at Mooney's Pub on Flatbush, was one of the best nights of my life that far, mostly because it showed me how many friends I'd made that year. You were there, and you, and you, and you. And you too!

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On the other side of the doorbell

            

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?"

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Of spiders and flies

            

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.

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Kanab family values

            

Almost exactly five years ago, I called your attention here to a brouhaha in the small town of Kanab, Utah, over the adoption by the city council of a non-binding resolution defining the family as "one man, one woman" with a "full quiver" of children. A few months later, Laura and I visited Kanab (a town founded by Mormon polygamists), where we were pleased to see many businesses opposing the resolution with "Everyone Welcome Here!" stickers in their windows.

I wish I'd known sooner, but I've just learned that there's a documentary out about the whole controversy:

Natural Family Values

I can't vouch for the quality, not having seen it yet, but you can be sure I'm ordering a copy and will watch it with interest.

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75

            

Donald William 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.



In 1984 my father and I were driving back roads somewhere east of Victorville in the California desert when he sprang a terrifying question on me. "Son," he asked, "do you want to serve a mission?"

I didn't know what to say. This was something I'd never been asked before, at least not in a way that betrayed any genuine interest in how I felt. I must have fielded that stock question hundred of times growing up, from relatives, family friends, and people at church, and the expected yes was always my reflexive answer. But the look on my father's face told me this time was different.

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The tissue at hand

            

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.

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Floppy puppy

            

Between five and six this morning, I had a pretty awful dream. I was somehow in a big grungy rusty white panel van with my family, who I guess were visiting town. Except it wasn't my family as it exists now. It was my parents circa the mid-seventies and my four youngest brothers and sisters circa the mid-eighties. My three other siblings were not around, but for some reason I was being forced to go to church with the family—a stake conference, to be precise. I didn't want to go, but there didn't seem to be a way out, and as we parked in gray dusk light near the church I realized angrily that I was going to miss meeting my friend Kevin that evening for beer (which is actually on my schedule for tonight).

The church was a strange one inside, with a chapel that was much wider than it was long, and with the congregation seated on rising auditorium-style benches looking down at the pulpit. The only door in or out was in the corner behind and to the left of the pulpit, so if I tried to leave everyone would see. As I tried to work up my courage to leave, I realized that I wasn't wearing Sunday clothes like the rest of the family. I had on white shorts and a black T-shirt with something printed on it. (Probably something obscene, I don't know.) Feeling hideously exposed, I turned to my parents and loudly announced that I was leaving and they couldn't stop me.

Outside the church, I found Ella on the porch leaning against the wall beside the door. Apparently she'd been in the van and someone had left it open. Anger surged inside me. Ella was very groggy and didn't even lick me as I picked her up and cradled her in my arms. She flopped bonelessly, like a rag doll, and somehow I knew she'd been hit by a car that pulverized her skeleton. I kicked open the door to the church and strode into the chapel bearing my dog like an accusation. "You did this to her!" I screamed.

That's when I woke up.

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Reading on video

            

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.

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Chicagoans, please come out to the Book Cellar in Lincoln Square this Monday, April 19, for the monthly Essay Fiesta reading series!

I'll be reading a humorous personal essay in company with Cameron Esposito, Jim Pickett, Bryan Bowden, and Rebecca Rine-Stone. It's all to benefit the Howard Brown Health Center, so come on down, have a laugh, and join the raffle or make a small donation.

It all takes place:

Monday, April 19th, 7:00-8:30 pm @ The Book Cellar 4736 N. Lincoln Ave. Chicago, IL 60625
For more info, click here. Hope to see you there!
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The devil at the end of my bed

            

I watched Paranormal Activity yesterday evening on DVD while waiting for Laura to get home from work. I found the movie deeply, thrillingly, and realistically frightening—not because I believe in ghosts or demons, but because it returned me to a time in my life when I did.

Between the ages of ten and sixteen or so, I experienced a few episodes of what I realize now must have been sleep paralysis. This occurs when the brain rouses from REM sleep but the body essentially remains asleep. You're fully awake and aware, but you can't move a muscle.

That's exactly what happened to me maybe half a dozen times that I remember. I would wake up in the darkness of my bedroom unable to move, terrified by the certain convinction that the Devil himself was holding me immobile, and that he was going to kill me. I would struggle to move for what seemed like an hour, to no avail. I would struggle to form words, to shout for help, also to no avail. I would struggle not to fall back to sleep, because I knew if I fell asleep I would die. I would silently pray to God for deliverance from my assailant, deliverance that only came when I did fall back into unwilling unconsciousness.

On one very memorable occasion, when I was an older teenager, this happened on a visit to my uncle's house in Los Angeles, while I was cocooned in sleeping bag on his living room floor. My father was in a sleeping bag not six feet away, but I couldn't make the tiniest peep to wake him up so he could save me.

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The Accidental Terrorist 30th Anniversary Sale

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About the Book

What happens when an ambivalent young Mormon missionary is pushed to the limit in a challenge to prove his faith? Hint: the outcome is explosive. The Accidental Terrorist is the long-awaited memoir from Hugo and Nebula Award–nominated author William Shunn, based on his popular podcast. Available now from Sinister Regard!