When I was 10, my family prepared for a trip to California. It would be our first vacation that involved air travel, we were set to visit Disneyland, and, eventually, I would get to watch my brother Dan vomit in our rented Lumina as my father piloted the lateral roller coaster that is Highway 1 along the Pacific Coast.
It should have been a fifth-grader's dream come true.
Unfortunately, the trip coincided with the first existential malaise of my life. I spent a large portion of our two-week trip in a sort of funk, wondering about what the hell it all "meant." At 10, I may not have been much with girls, but when it came to worrying, I was like a Little League pitcher with a curve ball.
I was afraid of change. I could tell that something (probably puberty) was on the horizon, and I wasn't sure I wanted any part of it. Till then, life had been pretty good. My only worries were the creepy high school kids on my school bus and the summer swimming lessons that scared me more than the potential cancellation of "Alf."
I couldn't figure out why I would want any of that to be different. None of the people I knew who were older than me seemed particularly happy. Age seemed to bring with it more problems.
Tossing aside the fact I was, well, right, and avoiding the heavy topic of "life's purpose," I'll focus in these pages (pixels) on how I eventually got out of my doldrums.
The keys were: 1. amateur psychology employed by my mother, and 2. the overly simplistic crooning of the son of Robert McFerrin Sr.
"Don't Worry, Be Happy" was huge in the fall of 1988. (For context: so was Kirk Gibson, Jackie-Joyner Kersee, and George Bush I.) The song even made it as far as the cabins under the shadow of Half Dome at Yosemite National Park, where, after our vacation took us north from Los Angeles and east from San Francisco, I wandered the coniferous thickets in a haze of pre-teen semi-depression.
When I heard the lyrics to Bobby McFerrin's song, I thought -- as if for the first time -- "You know, maybe he's right. I shouldn't worry. I should just … be happy." (Remember, I was 10.)
And then, like a good roundhouse after a well-placed jab aimed at my childish depression, my mother's words of wisdom: Try to find something to look forward to, even if you have to create it yourself.
So that's what I did. Whenever life seemed to be throwing too many bullets my way, I'd come up with a reason -- a reward -- to get through whatever time period I was dreading. A day off after finals. A new CD after a particularly brutal basketball practice. A luxurious 30 seconds in front of the urinal after class.
It worked. Soon, I was able to look forward to events I wasn't sure would even happen. I had, dare I say, faith that something better would come along.
Eventually, one of those somethings was music. By the time I was in high school and had real problems (prom, acne, driving a station wagon to school) I had discovered rock 'n' roll.
When I was down (probably unnecessarily) about some rejection or another, I was safe in the knowledge that there would probably be another Nine Inch Nails album some day. Beyond that: I knew that some band I didn't even know yet would release an album that would change everything about the way I listen to music.
My current station in life is not dissimilar to the one I occupied as a 10-year-old. I can tell that something is about to change, but I'm not completely sure I'm ready for it. With that on my mind, I opened an e-mail from a reader named Nate Kiesling. A portion of that e-mail follows:
You've probably already read through this but here's my radar list for 2010 all nicely condensed into one Web link … although I know there will be a lot more out there:
To be honest, I don't click on every link sent to me in e-mails. But because of my history with looking forward to things, I was intrigued by Nate's. I dug around the site he suggested and remembered my old methods for dealing with life. For some reason, I'd forgotten how very reassuring I find the concept of new music. For a moment, I was like Linus with his blanket. He-Man with Battle Cat at his side. Joe Lieberman in a limo with the CEO of Aetna.
Nate's e-mail put a question in my mind: What music will I soon be excited about again? I scurried off to Metacritic.com, my usual source for upcoming release dates. My eyes got starry …
Rogue Wave, Yeasayer, OK Go … all within the first two months of 2010.
And those aren't even the big ones. At least, not for me. These are:
With releases from Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Frightened Rabbit, March 9 is getting heavy mark-up on my mental calendar. I've raved about Frightened Rabbit since I've had the space to do so, but have always felt like I was doing that raving after the fact; I discovered the band nearly a year after their most recent album, "Midnight Organ Fight," was released.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club exists in the weird mental real estate occupied by bands I should recommend more often, but always forget about. As a band, BRMC has been as consistent as Kevin Seitzer, while saddled with a similarly obscure destiny.
A week later, on March 16, new work from the Drive-By Truckers. Meaning that on March 17, you'll be able to find me hunkered in my bedroom with a bottle of whiskey to drink, a mixed-breed dog to pet, and the Truckers on my stereo. I'll be as happy as a man can be.
(Note: I do not own a dog, mixed-breed or otherwise. But I might buy one on March 15, to get ready.)
Then there's Hot Chip, my favorite band to confuse for Cut/Copy, only to realize later that it doesn't matter which is which, because they're both great. Album out in February.
And, of course, there are the rumors -- will there be a National record this year? Something from Interpol? Will Tool put an album together?
These questions may seem unimportant, speculative and like they're downright time-wasters. But in the world that exists inside my brain, these are potential sanity-savers.
But those are only the albums from bands I already know. Even more exciting are the bands about which I know nothing. And while I'm thrilled that I'll get to hear something from Rogue Wave this year, I'm even more excited about the concept of a band that I've never even imagined could exist. One year ago, I'd never heard of Manchester Orchestra, Miike Snow or Bad Veins. One month ago, those artists helped make up my Top 10 of 2009.
Which, I suppose, is part of what I wish I could tell the 10-year-old version of me. Along with reassuring my freckle-faced self that a time would come when I could buy all the Honey Nut Cheerios I want, I would say this:
Sure, life changes. And sure, it's nice to look forward to the things you know. But it might be even more effective to look forward to the things you don't know. Because, in the end, they'll be the reason not to worry.
And to be happy.
Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams: the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. His book "Can I Keep My Jersey?" -- which is available in paperback -- can be found here. He can be found at Twitter (Twitter.com/paulthenshirley) and you can e-mail him here.