On a Saturday morning in March of 1994, I was at a slumber party for my friend’s birthday on a living room floor strewn with sleeping bags and other 12 year old girls. We were watching an MTV video countdown of current hits. I hardly knew any of them. But the number 3 video was “Mr. Jones” by Counting Crows. It was like time stopped for a minute. I fell in love immediately.
At 12, I didn’t really buy a lot of albums or go anywhere to buy albums in the first place. But on my church choir tour to New Orleans the following June I finally bought August and Everything After at a mall we visited. We weren’t allowed to have any secular music on the trip, so I had to be a little sneaky. But I was so excited, so my friends and I put it in my walkman without the headphones and we started playing it in the church van. One of the sponsors heard us (obviously) and took the tape away from me for the rest of the trip. Then I got it back. I obsessively listened to Round Here and Mr. Jones. I would sit on the floor facing my stereo and just fast forward and rewind between those two songs over and over.But then everyone cool I knew was listening to Green Day’s Dookie, and I eventually moved on with the crowd.
December 31, 1999, at 18 years old, I was at a friend’s parents’ lake house for the new year and the guy I had a crush on put on the live Counting Crows album Across a Wire; it starts with an acoustic version of Round Here, and I had never heard it. I still loved that song, and I immediately fell for the whole thing. The song, the guy, the night. All of it was perfect. So I bought the live album. And it was shockingly good to me. I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t been listening to it already. (This recently happened to me again with The Cure. When I listened to Disintegration I was shocked that I had lived so long without hearing it. It was so perfect to me.)
Early in 2000, I quickly bought August and Everything After, Recovering the Satellites, and This Desert Life–the three studio albums they had by that point. And I devoured them. All of it. I listened to it all the time for a while. Then I started to ration how often I would allow myself to listen to them for fear that they would lose their magic. They never did. The soft gloominess mixed with emphatic searching of August and Everything After suited me so well as an 18 year old. And I still find myself relating to that album every time I listen to it. Every song on that album has been my favorite song in the world at some point. And no matter how old I get, that album always seems to fit.
Before my senior year of high school, I wanted to be a history major in college, probably focusing on 17th and 18th century France. I loved Versailles; I was taken in by the fairy-tale like material beauty of it and fascinated by its characters and it’s downfall. Marie Antoinette particularly stood out to me. (Antonia Fraser’s biography Marie Antoinette: The Journey is brilliant).
But it turns out that French literature of the 19th century would change my path. I read Madame Bovary my senior year of high school, and I had a visceral reaction. I loathed Emma Bovary; she was a monster, and I was angry that Gustave Flaubert would even write her. And yet I was completely enthralled. I hated her and yet loved the book. I had never felt that way about a piece of art.
In class discussion about the book, my teacher told us the famous story of Flaubert exclaiming, “I am Madame Bovary!” And it hit me immediately like a ton of bricks: that was why I hated her. Because I, too, am Madame Bovary. And I didn’t want to be. I wanted to be content and amiable. I wanted to be grateful and selfless. But I was not content. I was sad and bored. I didn’t “act out” the way Emma Bovary did, though. I turned inward. I tried to rid myself of my discontent and boredom with daydreams and art.
I guess I am still, tragically, a Madame Bovary, as much as I may still love/hate it. It’s personality enhanced by depression. But I accept it. And I try to be more thoughtful than Emma Bovary, although, I do not always succeed.
In June of 2000, just days after my high school graduation, I went with my family to London and Paris. We spent a good deal of time visiting the major art museums in both cities, and my sister, who had taken some art history courses in college, gave us wonderful details about many of the famous works we saw. She brought the already intriguing museums to life, telling us about why certain works were important.
I knew a little bit about art–a print of Van Gogh’s Starry Night hung in my bedroom, but seeing it in person and hearing about it was exhilarating. On that trip, my favorite museum in London was the Tate Modern, and my favorite in Paris was the Musée d’Orsay. At the Musée d’Orsay, I so clearly remember seeing and being shaken by Van Gogh’s 1889 Self-Portrait.
Van Gogh is a stunning painter, but his works are breath-taking in person. When I finally saw Starry Night in person in Houston when the best works of the MOMA were traveling the US, I was overwhelmed by it. When I returned home, I got rid of my print–it was nothing compared to the original.
In June 2000–June 11, 2000 according to my journal–I saw Self-Portrait. I entered a room in the museum and looked directly to my right. Before I could even turn my body toward it, everything seemed to get blurry except for that painting. It felt like I was being drawn in by his eyes. It’s so life-like without being realist at all. It feels like it has energy.
Wikipedia’s page on this work states, “Van Gogh sent the picture to his younger brother, the art dealer Theo; an accompanying letter read: ‘You will need to study [the picture] for a time. I hope you will notice that my facial expressions have become much calmer, although my eyes have the same insecure look as before, or so it appears to me.'”
I saw my own insecurities in his eyes. I saw my inability to filter out the static of depression in the movement of the brushstrokes. He seemed desperate. He seemed unsettled. He seemed discontent. I felt all of those things. I get all of those feelings. And sometimes I wish that they showed on my face as clearly as I see them in Self-Portrait.