You might know Paul Shirley from his last book, Can I Keep My Jersey? 11 Teams, 5 Countries, and 4 Years in My Life as a Basketball Vagabond (with introduction by Chuck Klosterman), one of those SEO-friendly book subtitles that does most of the job of introducing him for me. Subtitles are hard, because the root of all memoir writing is an interesting writer telling the stories that matter to him or her. Everyone has stories, and if the writer is interesting, it’s a straightforward matter of choosing a few.
The hard part is finding the hook, the theme, a way of telling potential readers what they’re in for and what separates these particular stories from someone else’s. Shirley, a basketball star at Iowa State; end-of-the-bencher for the Phoenix Suns, LA Lakers, and others; and an expat pro athlete in Greece, Spain, Russia, and others, recently published his second book, Stories I Tell On Dates.
“I noticed that, when I was on dates, I often found myself falling into the same stories, almost like I was going into material,” Paul says. “At first, I was a little angry with myself, but then I noticed that everyone does this — that we all have pet stories that explain who we are, where we came from, and where we’re going. So I started writing my stories down. Four years later and, voila, a memoir!”
And no lengthy subtitle required. Paul’s first date happened to be a movie date, to the 1994 Nicolas Cage/Shirley McClaine vehicle Guarding Tess. Here, he shares an excerpt from the book and ponders the utility of the movie date in general. (Which is to say, these will be Paul’s words from here on out).
When I was young, going on a date meant going to the movies. I’m not entirely sure why this was the case, except that I’d seen people take dates to movies on TV and, well, in the movies. Oh, and going to the movies was cheap.
It’s not surprising, then, that my first date was with Kelly Stepka to see Guarding Tess, that forgettable sorta-comedy starring Nicolas Cage and Shirley MacLaine. I was 16, and it was the only PG-13 movie available at the West Ridge Six Theater in Topeka, Kansas.
There were more movies in high school; I took my senior-year girlfriend to see Heat because my uncle said it was good. It was good, but it was not a date movie. At least not a high-school-date movie.
In college, I met the girl I thought was the one of my dreams and took her to see The Game with Sean Penn. Before it started, I somehow dropped into conversation that I’d been born in Menlo Park, California, which I thought worth mentioning because we were in Iowa and California seemed way cooler than Iowa.
We did not go on any more dates, but the girl of my college dreams does now live a few miles from Menlo Park, California, so maybe my breath wasn’t entirely wasted.
As college became post-college, there were more movie-dates. The first movie I saw in a foreign country was Amelie. I was in Greece and it was in French… with Greek subtitles. In Barcelona, I took a Scottish girl to a movie at the theater complex where they showed movies accompanied by the magical acronym we searched for: V.O.S.E (version original, subtitulos Español). Afterward, when I went to kiss her, she “turned the cheek” — the first, although not last time that would happen.
I didn’t go to any movies when I lived in Russia.
But then, as my twenties became my thirties, I started thinking about movies, and about being an adult, and about “getting to know” my dates. And when I thought about it, I decided: movies were a pretty silly idea for dates.
I mean, there you were, staring at a screen not talking, not getting to know one another. And we needed to get to know one another! We needed to share our hopes and dreams and our carefully couched revelations about how we’re, like, so nerdy because we “read books” and tell stories about this one time we stood in line for Bush tickets, but we’d never listen to Bush now. (We’d totally listen to Bush now.)
So I started doing “adult” things on my dates: going to bars, or to coffee shops, or to the beach, or on hikes.
Sure enough: these situations did give us far more opportunities for discussion—chances to “get to know one another.”
And so that is that, right? Movies are bad first dates and I’ve learned my lesson and let’s get back to your regularly scheduled Instagram feed.
Not so fast. Because now I’m not so sure.
I don’t know about you, but I, for one, am pretty tired of my shit. I’m nearly 40 years old, which means I’ve had 40 years of telling people what it was like growing up in Kansas, or what it was like going to college in Iowa, or what it was like playing basketball (and seeing movies) in Greece.
That’s not the worst of it. I’m also tired of my views on just about everything, including, but not limited to:
demons, demographics, the Democratic party, Demetri Martin, dimmer switches, dimethyltryptamine, and the most underrated dinosaur of all: Dimetrodon
And if I’m honest, a movie sounds like a real treat. Two hours (or more, if it’s Heat, or Dunkirk) of blessed, necessary silence.
Afterward, we can talk about the movie. And, God willing, just the movie. Because, you see, not only am I tired of my shit; I’m tired of their shit, too. I have gone on very few dates with international correspondents for the Financial Times. But these days, it seems like everyone I meet thinks they’re an international correspondent for the Financial Times. Because everyone now knows everything. Nevermind that they don’t know everything, because:
A) no one knows everything. B) no one reads anything, let alone anything they disagree with.
But that’s a rant for another day. For now, let us return to the task at hand: me selling you on the idea that, in this ONE VERY SPECIFIC INSTANCE, my 16-year-old self was correct.
Movies are great for dates.
However, that doesn’t mean a date to the movies will go like you think.
Now, here’s a story about that—a story about that first date of mine, with me, Kelly Stepka, and a script I tried to follow.
Almost like I was in a movie.
When Jim Reese, the baldheaded proprietor of Skinner’s Nursery and Garden Store, first asked me if I was looking for a weekend job that might turn into a summer job, I responded just like my parents had taught me whenever I didn’t really want to do something: I said I’d think about it.
I was poor, but I was 16. My Saturday nights were not occupied by beer bashes at the lake. They were spent fighting with my father and brothers about whether we would watch Saturday Night Live, American Gladiators, or Star Trek: The Next Generation. (It was a marvelous era for late night television.)
In other words: I wasn’t finding my poverty particularly alarming.
That is, until a crisp spring day in Meriden when I asked Kelly Stepka if she’d come outside with me. After we were finished eating lunch, of course.
It’s getting nice, so it makes sense to go outside. Here, I would like to open this door for you.