Friday I couldn’t decide what made me more excited: the thought of hearing Gavin DeGraw, or Train. In a perfect storm of Friday, Summer, and My Favorite Bands, both were on the same stage in a concert that I couldn’t have dreamed up. They were even going to have a band in between called The Script who came all the way from Ireland. They were all performing at The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in The Woodlands, an award-winning planned community off of I-45 outside of Houston, yet part of Houston all at the same time.
I had a friend who was supposed to come with me, but she ended up having to work, which is not always a bad thing. So I recruited my twelve year old son, Christopher, to come with me. I make him listen to a lot of Gavin DeGraw and Train in my car, so I knew he would know a lot of the words, even if he had internalized them under duress. Trust me: we have “I Don’t Wanna Be” and “Soul Sister” down cold. The thing I love about The Cynthia Woods Pavilion is that it is outside and easy to get to, and you could bring your whole family if you felt like it. But I also wanted Christopher to know about George Phydias Mitchell, an amazing man who died last week on July 26th. He was the man who developed The Woodlands, where over 120,000 people now reside, and he named the concert venue we were going to after his wife, Cynthia Woods Mitchell.
I knew that I wanted to write about George Mitchell–the newspaper had a full page obituary about him–and so when we left our suburb to make the trek to The Woodlands on Friday afternoon, I stuck the obituary in the car so that Christopher could read about him. Although I was sure that I was outwitting Houston traffic patterns by leaving early, the truth is the traffic was terrible and we had plenty of slow downs, so whenever we came to a crawl, I would ask Christopher to read another column of the obituary. Anyone could tell it must have been difficult to condense this man’s spirit and accomplishments into a single page. Christopher would read a column at a time, and it was impressive to hear about his life out loud.
George Mitchell grew up in Galveston. He was poor, lost his mother when he was young, and developed an early entrepreneurial strain out of necessity. This man, originally inspired by an interest in astronomy, studied chemistry, physics, and math, and then, at Texas A&M, also studied geology and petroleum engineering. He put himself through school selling stationery, he went into the petroleum industry, he served in World War II, and he developed his own independent consulting business. With his brother, he developed the Mitchell Energy and Development Corporation, and contributed major innovations in hydraulic fracturing and energy development, while also maintaining an interest in preserving the environment. He was also a life-long tennis enthusiast. He was instrumental in Galveston’s economic and cultural renaissance. Maybe above all, Mitchell was clearly an interested and loyal husband, father, and grandfather. His interest in growth and sustainability was made concrete in the development of The Woodlands, which won the FIABCI Prix D’Excellence international award for design, among many other distinctions. Never forgetting his fascination with astronomy, he even began the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy at Texas A&M, as well as being a major supporter of the Giant Magellan Telescope. It is amazing how looking at the stars can really lead you somewhere.
Listening to Christopher read about his life made me think that there was nothing that this man could not do: it made you feel good about the future. He accomplished so much. But one part of his obituary really stuck with me, and I quote from it here:
“His commitment to family–and his optimism and confidence–are summed up in a line from a letter he wrote to his sister Maria at a time when they struggled financially to stay in college: ’It’s a tough old world sis but if we pull together we can lick it.’”
I loved the sound of that line, but I also liked how it was another way of saying what we should all be saying to each other every day. Or, as Train might say, “I won’t give up if you don’t give up.” I don’t think of this as a cliched way of thinking. I think of it as the only way to go.
In today’s Sunday Houston Chronicle, former mayor Bill White lauded Mitchell’s ability to think from the perspective of “the long run.” White succinctly summarizes what Mitchell was able to do with his vision of The Woodlands:
“George developed his vision of The Woodlands based on an understanding that it is worth solving distant problems today, before they become tomorrow’s short-run crises. He was willing to incur short-term costs in order to preserve The Woodlands’ long-term value. He placed electrical utility lines underground before construction started; dedicated more land as parks and public easements that allowed thoroughfares to have large, green medians….and set aside land for offices of companies that many thought would never move to suburbs. The astounding appreciation in the property values in The Woodlands over the past 24 months is likely greater than the entire cost of George’s initial investment.”
I didn’t want Christopher to know about him because I necessarily want him to become anything in particular, such as a community developer or a titan in the energy business, but I did want him to know about the kind of person George Mitchell was. I didn’t know him, but just in the very act of driving to The Woodlands and enjoying a concert, with literally thousands of other people at such an amazing venue, showed how we were all benefitting, as individuals and as part of the Houston community, from Mitchell’s vision. Lots of people have visions, but Mitchell was someone who knew how to follow through, and his legacy was as concrete as the concert hall to which we were driving. It was inspiring.
We had some time before the concert started, so we ate and went to Barnes and Noble to look around. The Woodlands Mall is a whole area of shopping and restaurants with inside and outdoor features, and it is part of the larger planned community of living, shopping, and culture. We walked easily from restaurants to shops to the concert; everything flows and if you want to take a trolly or a water taxi, you can do that too.
As usual, we never just look around. It is hard to resist the written word, and there is no frigate like a book or a super slick magazine, so we always end up buying stuff. I buy something on Flannery O’Connor, a collection of autobiographical pieces by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a couple of new novels I have been wanting to read. We pick up a copy of Psychology Today, which I have not read in years, because it is full of practical things now: ”When to Make the First Move,” “The Asset CEOs Need Most,” “Deconstructing the World’s Most Dangerous Despot,” you know, things you can use. But the cover story is what seals the deal: Christopher and I both want to know “What Happy People Do Differently,” and the subtitle gives us a clue: “#1 They Seek Risk, Not Reward.” It is not until today, when I am writing this piece, that I realize how perfectly this aligns with what George Mitchell’s life might teach us. He took big risks, and ones that we all have benefitted from, but it seemed to come out of a refreshing blend of curiosity about the world around him and a selflessness that stems from a fundamental level of humility. He dreamed big, but these dreams were those that affected many, not just himself. And by all accounts, his 90 plus years were happy ones. I always used to think that rock stars were the biggest risk takers–were not the odds always against them? But I want Christopher to know there are rock stars in many walks of life, and that the element of risk might get less press in these other endeavors, but it does not make it any less thrilling, any less significant. That kind of risk just isn’t necessarily accompanied by dry ice, screaming girls, and a neon light show.
So we get to the concert and it is hot, I mean really hot, but we get situated and I am so taken by the show that precedes the bands that I wish I had a pen and paper to codify the mass of humanity around me. Where is Walt Whitman when you need him? You have entire families, maxi skirts and mini skirts, tattoo addicts and those who would never get a tattoo if their very lives depended on it. I see girls dressed as if they are ten years older, women dressed as if they are ten years younger. But the common denominator is that no matter who you are, or where you come from, you are at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion and you are very happy to be here. With these three bands, there is something for everyone, and the acoustics are fantastic. We get our lawn chairs and our overpriced Dr. Pepper and I am sure I will be talked into popcorn at some point. I realize that it is only 15 more minutes until Gavin DeGraw will slide in front of the piano and start singing about how he is in love with a girl, and I think: this is a pretty decent dose of happiness, and we are just getting started.
Gavin doesn’t let me down, I have been a fan for a long time, this is my fifth time to see him in concert. But it strikes me as fundamentally wrong that he is the opening act…who is The Script anyway? I know they sing that catchy song about how a heart doesn’t break even, but no way should they be following Gavin DeGraw. Once I saw Gavin at The House of Blues, and there was a big tent sponsored by 93.7 with this huge box to put your name in so that you could meet him in person. I told the kids running the contest that I was old enough to be Gavin DeGraw’s mother, that I taught English and thought there was a pronounced strain of American Transcendentalism in songs such as “Chariot,” and that I had most of the words he had written (maybe even by hand) memorized. They said if my name wasn’t chosen, there would be “other chances” to meet him. I rattled off a few lyrics and said I wasn’t sure if I had that kind of time, I wasn’t getting any younger, and that if I couldn’t meet him, well, then, what was the point of even coming? I had all his cds after all at home. I could listen to him without actually meeting him there. Next thing I knew, I was getting a call on my cell that I was “one of ten chosen for the meet and greet.” See, risk-takers are happier people. I had my picture taken with my date, me, and Gavin, and I still have it in my office. Except the framed picture in my office has only Gavin and me. Through the miracle of photoshop, I was able to eliminate my date at the time entirely from this picture. Because really, this meeting had nothing to do with him, and everything to do with Gavin DeGraw. Now I use this incident routinely to discuss the joys of excision when editing. It is amazing how a project can improve by merely eliminating the inessential. Editing is fun.
Gavin sings his heart out, sings his new songs, sings “I Don’t Wanna Be” while walking though the crowd, because he is a real guy, and he loves his fans. He sings that no matter what he says, he is not over me. I mean “you,” but you get my drift. It is a crying shame that he is only on for 40 minutes. A crying shame. But what can you do? We get popcorn and try to cope. I was lucky that I got to meet him at House of Blues when he was performing for about 2,000 people, instead of here, at The Woodlands, in front thousands more.
Then The Script comes out. I like that a few dedicated girls stand up through most of their songs even though for awhile most people stay seated. They have several hits, but they do this pop-rap thing sometimes that I really hate because every line sounds the same and you start to lose interest in the words–it is just too repetitive. I have been heavily influenced by what Ray Charles said in an interview concerning rap music: he said, “That’s not music. That’s just talkin’.” And who wants to hear a bunch of Irish guys talk really fast when we are all set up to hear singing?
I start to think if you lined up all the bands in the world in a big line, The Script would be right in the middle. They aren’t great, they aren’t terrible, but they do drop the “F” word a couple of times, and Christopher looks at me like I should do something. But we are on the lawn. It is not like I can rush the stage in protest. Instead, I say, “Hey, I guess they didn’t see ALL THE KIDS in the audience. I guess they totally forgot they were in Texas, a big red state. I guess they got super confused and thought they were in a bar in Ireland. I guess they totally forgot they were in front of thousands of people. I guess they forgot to stick to the script and not do that.” Christopher likes that part, the part where The Script should stick to the script. But still: come on. I am mad that they talk like that–it is an all-ages concert. Kids are everywhere at this show and Gavin and Train don’t need to use that sort of cheap, gimmicky, attention-getting, desperate, shocking kind of language. They have talent. The best thing about The Script is that they do have an awesome guitarist who can also sing, and for the last number he was basically doing River Dance while playing, and that is the kind of multitasking I can respect. But I thought they would never stop singing that song about how times are tough and don’t give up on me baby, and things got less tough for me when that song actually stopped. Christopher can never pull the old “I have ADHD” thing on me because the whole time The Script was playing he was reading through Psychology Today, thus proving that so-so music can actually make some kids focus like a laser.
But then Train comes out, and Christopher is up on his feet, everyone is, and we all need a sign, to let us know someone is here, we need help uncrossing all the lines in the atmosphere. Row after row is up and singing, Pat Monahan is calling all you angels, and so are we. This is one of their signature songs–I have seen them sing it a cappella at other concerts in honor of our troops. I have seen them sing this, this song that we all think at one time or another, about how we need to know that things are going to look up, and they are right: sometimes I think we all are drowning “in a sea spilled from a cup.” But then they sing the refrain: that they are calling all angels, and that they won’t give up if you don’t give up, and it is contagious, it is intoxicating, and I am glad Christopher knows the words to this song which is about how the world is a tough old place but if we pull together we can lick it.
Train follows through–they sing old songs, they sing new songs, they praise Houston, they sing “Soul Sister,” they sing “Drops of Jupiter” in the encore. They give lots of money to charity, especially one that supports parents with really sick children. I know there are a ton of pop bands. But I might as well love a band like Train who makes the world a better place even when they are not singing, even when they are not on stage being rock stars.
We loved this evening, and we walk to the car in the night, which has cooled down a bit. As we walk through the Pavilion and the shops and restaurants, I think of George Mitchell and how his vision wasn’t just something hopeful, but something that became real. Everyone at this concert was really happy. How many times do you see thousands of people gathered together that happy? It was something to see. It made you want to sing, even if you really can’t sing that well. It made you want to try. It made you excited that someone could live to be almost 100, play tennis, found an energy company, fund a huge astronomy project, come up with The Woodlands and make so many great things possible. It made you realize that in this world, you can really have Gavin DeGraw and Train take the same stage the same night. I know that there is the line in “Calling All Angels” about how we live “in a world where what we want is only what we want until it’s ours,” but that’s not always true. It’s good that they open with that song. It is one worth keeping, no matter how many times you hear it.