The holidays are stressful.
Part one: Expectations
From Thanksgiving-eve until New Years, my every day, evening and weekend moment is filled with some required, obligatory merriment or merriment-preparation. My parents divorced when I was young, and have both remarried, and sharing holidays was stressful as a kid, but nowhere near as stressful as it is now.
When I was a kid, what time I showed up at which grandparents’ house or what gifts were procured for whom was my parents’ problem, not mine. Shuttling around and making my schedule was their issue. I was little. I showed up and everything was fine. Then I got a driver’s license. Then it was all on me.
This means I am responsible for three families’ worth of gifts, party preparations and driving from state to state to attend multiple same-day holiday gatherings where I can never really enjoy anything because I’m always supposed to be somewhere else. That’s hard enough, but then the added bonus is passive-aggressive comments about how I “choose” to spend “my” time. “I guess you’re not coming.” “Are you coming at all this year?” Nobody will be flexible. “It’s always been this way,” they say. “We can’t change it. It’s tradition.” Any kind of compromise would leave everybody bitter and disappointed, unable to hold back rude comments, so I’m just stuck trying to please everyone. I don’t even have siblings I can spread these obligations out with.
A few years ago, I was so strung out by all the “merriment” I threw up while driving on an 8-lane interstate highway. I just barfed right into my hand and then dug around for some napkins. Once I had to get a hotel room to have some roadside digestion issues outside Richmond, Va. trying to drive back to my apartment in D.C. in time to work Dec. 26th, after waking up in Atlanta for Christmas with my mom and stepdad, visiting my stepdad’s parents for lunch, driving to South Carolina to my dad’s parents’ house for a late lunch and then hauling it back to D.C. Christmas night.
When I explain this to people, they always make some brush-off comment. “Oh, poor baby has too many parties and presents.” No. Poor baby would like to spend Christmas enjoying something instead of fighting traffic on four-hour drives and splitting 24 hours with 60+ people.
It’s not just Christmas Eve and day, it’s also the weekends around. Saturday I will go to a breakfast party here in Atlanta with my stepfather’s entire family (aunts, uncles, cousins, about 50 people) then my mom, stepdad and I will drive to N.C. for a party with my mom’s brothers and sisters and all their kids and husbands and boyfriends (30ish people). Then Sunday we’ll drive back to Georgia so we can all be back at work on Monday.
Part 2: Other people
Today I was at The Container Store, buying gift boxes and shipping boxes and wrapping paper and ribbon and all that business. I had too much to carry in my hands and had to get a shopping cart, and I’m as polite as I can be as people on their cell phones swoop in front of me to block items I was trying to get, or when a kid hits me in the ankle with a cart. Once I get to the line, there are three registers open and a woman behind me with only a handful of things.
She starts sighing loudly, and steps around beside me.
I offer her the only thing I can. “Would you like to go ahead of me? I have a lot of stuff.”
“No,” she says. “I just can’t believe they only have three registers open.” And then she keeps talking, grumpy rude negative talking, directed mainly at me, but about nothing that I can do anything about. I’m not the staffing manager for The Container Store. I already offered her the one thing I had, and she said no. Why do I have to listen to her complaining? There weren’t any other people in line, so it wasn’t like there really needed to be more registers open, and it was 6 p.m. on a Tuesday, not 3 p.m. on a Saturday. The store wasn’t very busy.
I want to tell these people that broadcasting their annoyances doesn’t do anything but make everyone around uncomfortable. When somebody complains to me, I want to fix their problem. When I can’t fix it, and they can’t fix it, and really nobody can fix it, is just frustrating.
When she left, I was still checking out, because I did have a lot of stuff. (I like wrapping paper, what can I say? It’s the only part of the holidays I’m really into.) She made a point to stop and say “Oh, I guess you really did have a lot of stuff.” Like she was insinuating that she should have taken my offer. She should have. The only thing that would have been more annoying is if she had taken my spot in line but then also complained. I guess I should be thankful for that.
We all have to endure some kind of holiday unpleasantness. I try to think of David Foster Wallace’s “This is water” speech, and how every person is just dealing with their own lives, and isn’t there just to annoy me or upset me. They’re just trying to buy their own wrapping paper, or have their own ideal holiday traditions preserved. This is Christmas water. This is Christmas water. This is Christmas water.
In honor of my thirty-third year of living you all should watch the SNL Old Glory Robot Insurance commercial.
I remember a minute, some time in the summer of 2004, when somebody was talking to me about the Usher/Lil Jon superjam “Yeah!” and said something like, yeah, huh, I guess Atlanta has some hip-hop credibility now.
Uh, are you serious?
While New York and LA were fighting it out (with each other and inside themselves), Atlanta has always had this shit on lockdown. Hip hop in the other cities was racial and tense and dangerous, and hip hop here has always been a different flavor. We aren’t New York. We aren’t LA. We are ourselves, and we gotta keep this shit together. The city too busy to hate. The Phoenix, rising from the ashes, literally and figuratively.
Last night, sweaty and screamed out and surrounded by 20,000 other ATLiens, Andre Benjamin yelled to us: We take the name Outkast seriously. We don’t do this for black people. We don’t do this for white people. … We do this for everybody.
At the 1995 Source Awards, Outkast was named Best New Artist. The east coast/west coast rap feuds were strong. Biggie and Tupac would both be dead within two years. Snoop Dogg dissed the east coast. Suge Knight called out Puff Daddy. Outkast and some of the Goodie Mob crew turned up to accept their award and were booed. Two 19-20 year old kids from some city y’all think is still second-rate (or worse), on your stage getting your best new artist award? Andre, who somehow looks young always, but looked like an actual child on that stage, looked hurt for about a second, took that award and just said “The south got something to say.”
And we did.
Those New York and LA people didn’t like Outkast, but people are always afraid of what they don’t understand. And I see how people wouldn’t understand Outkast. It’s weird. It didn’t sound like Death Row Records and it didn’t sound like Bad Boy Records and in 1995 that’s all there was. Outkast was hip hop, rap, soul, electro, funk, jazz, spoken word, unflinchingly honest and vulnerable long before Kanye and Drake made that a thing. Andre and Big Boi themselves were so different from each other you couldn’t imagine them even talking, let alone signing a record deal together at 17. But if they could do this together, we would do it with them.
Say what you want about the south, but loyalty isn’t our problem. You fight one of us, you fight the whole crew. You say something bad, the whole team will come after you. There is a zero tolerance policy. So when people started going after Outkast, we had our marching orders: Protect and defend southern artists and rappers at all costs. You boo our kids on stage like that and we’re coming after you.
And since this is not New York or LA that doesn’t mean we’re going to send some guys to shoot you in a car, that means we’re going to play the long game. We’re going to work twice as hard as you and make better records than you and have better fans than you and this is going to be a movement and y’all better watch out.
And it was a battle, but we put in the work. After those Source awards in 1995, for the past 19 years, the south, dirty and otherwise, have put Atlanta at the tip-top of the world for doing what we do better than anybody. The Outkasts and Goodie Mobs, Jermaine Dupri, TLC, Ciara, T.I., Ludacris and Lil Jon and all those southern superstars solidified the ATL as the place for young creative people who wanted to do something different with music. Hip hop in the south could be political and deep and philosophical AND you could dance to it, all at the same time. And everybody here got it, instantly.
For the first time, there were people on MTV speaking our language, our culture, our realities, and getting respect for it. Our identity was validated to the whole country. How everybody thought of the south as shoeless hillbillies and racist assholes and poverty and stupidity and we showed them that was wrong. Everybody had us wrong. Everybody underestimated us. Well, we sure as shit showed them.
And that’s it. That’s what music is about: bringing people together and having a good time.
So right now, Outkast is on stage about a mile away from my apartment, playing the last show of their 20-year reunion tour. Last night, Big Boi said he felt like he was finally playing a home game for once. And ALL of Atlanta came out. The Outkast crowd was the best crowd I’ve ever been around. The most loving, caring, considerate, fun-having party-time people I’ve ever been around. Last weekend at Music Midtown, multiple times I felt nervous and pushed around by the crowd. Anxious. Like were were just a few seconds away from a fight or a riot. But last night, at Outkast, I felt like we were seconds away from some sort of mass religious experience. I rapped and danced and sang my heart out around 20-year-old white kids, 35-year-old Hispanic rockabilly dudes, 40-year-old black guys, moms, grandmoms, dads and a shirtless guy who knew every word to every Childish Gambino song.
We’re all in this together because that’s what Atlanta is about. The city too busy to hate, except if it’s to hate on someplace else.
A few weeks ago I was feeling worn-out and bad about my general life choices up to this point, and then the reality of life because of those choices. To cheer myself up, I listened to David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College. “This is water,” he says. What the hell is water?
And I was crying and my mom called me, and she asked what I was doing and I told her about the speech and the reminder and the real hopefulness in it, and then how he’s gone now. And he said she worried about me sometimes being around all these sad people. And she didn’t mean actual people I know who are sad. She meant my books and movies and music and singers and writers and artists, and I’m not around them, I’m just around their work.
When I think about people I admire who ended up killing themselves, I think about failing them constantly. I think about how the other seven billion of us didn’t do anything to stop them. Not like, physically pulling the gun out of their hand or whatever, but bigger, realer things, like making the world a place they could stay in and be OK. Would a world David Foster Wallace would choose to stay alive in be better for everyone? Probably. How about a world Alexander McQueen would choose? Or Vincent van Gogh? Or Mark Rothko? Hunter Thompson? Or the world we all would choose to stay in.
Instead of trying to change them, or make people stay and be miserable, why don’t we fix everything so everyone wants to stay?