(Ironminds – 2000)
Everything I Need To Know About Life I Learned From Watching Ed
Everybody wants to live in Stuckeyville
Question: What’s the best show on television?
Yeah, you’re probably going to say The West Wing or maybe The Sopranos. Or if you are heavily medicated or your cable box is broken and stuck on CBS, you might say Survivor. But you are so, so wrong.
Let me introduce you to Ed Stevens. You see, Ed was a big New York City lawyer who had it all: the great salary, the pretty wife, the nice apartment and the fast track to a great career. But then he misplaced a comma in a 500-page contract and cost the firm $1.6 million. Bye bye, great job and salary. Then he went home to tell his wife, but she was sleeping with the mailman (or, as she put it, “he’s not the mailman, he’s a mailman. He just happens to be one.”). Bye bye, wife. What would you do?
Ed went back to his hometown, Stuckeyville, Ohio, to pursue the heart of the girl who hardly paid any attention to him in high school, reconnect to his roots and his best friends and get his life in order. And, oh yeah, he also bought a bowling alley.
Now why does the review of a TV show come with such an opening? Why does the review of a TV show come with a title like “Everything I Need To Know I Learned From Watching Ed?” Because it has struck a chord with me, and I figured I’d tell you what I have learned from watching this show every Wednesday night at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.
WHAT YOU DO IS NOT WHO YOU ARE
Maybe I should explain. For most of my life, I’ve tied the type of person I am into the career I’ve chosen — writing. As if being a writer could excuse all of my shortcomings. “Hey, I know I don’t make enough money to pay the bills or go out and do anything, and I know I don’t have a car, but hey, I’m a writer! I have to suffer for my art.” Or something like that.
One of the running jokes about Ed (played with effortless charm and skill by Tom Cavanagh) is that many people, especially rival attorneys in the courtroom, refer to Ed as “the bowling alley lawyer.” As Ed says, “It suggests that I specialize in bowling alley-related cases. Not so. I own a bowling alley, and I am a lawyer. Two separate things.”
I can’t tell you how much of an eye-opener this piece of dialogue was to me, even at age 35. While I’ve spent so many years writing, either freelance or on staff for several publications, I’ve often had to take other jobs to pay the bills (one of the realities of wanting to have a writing career). I’ve been incredibly scared of not only not finding enough writing work to pay those bills and have money for myself, but also that if I wasn’t writing full-time and had to take other jobs, that people wouldn’t call me a “writer.”
Where the hell did this thinking come from? Actually, I know where it came from. Too many how-to-write books, too much focusing on my favorite writers who did make a living just from their writing, and writing so much that I sort of lost track of how the real world operates. As if some not having some full-time “title” could make me less of what I am. I mean, so I’m not a full-time writer. Big fucking deal. As if having a full-time or a part-time job would negate or lessen the actual writing that comes out of me. As if most writers don’t have other jobs anyway.
Now, obviously, if you’re a dictator or a pimp, than, yeah, what you do is probably pretty representative of who you are. But you know what I mean.
NEW YORK CITY IS NOT THE MOST IMPORTANT PLACE IN THE WORLD
It certainly can be, of course, especially if you want a full-time job in publishing. But even then you have choices. I live north of Boston, where opportunities in the publishing biz are slim at best (especially in general-interest magazines or any type of magazine, actually). I’ve been offered several jobs in New York City: staff writer for $45,000, ad sales rep for probably more, and various other editorial jobs (not to mention the pre-IPO Web site producer job I was offered in San Francisco two years ago that would have paid me … I’ll shut up now).
These jobs would have been fantastic for my career, and I’d be in New York City, the place where writing happens! The concrete, skyscraper jungle where all the publishing dreams I’ve had since I was 15 years old would become reality! The buzz! The atmosphere! The parties!
Of course, I could add, with just as many exclamation points, the expense! The lack of good friends! The competition! We all make choices in life. I bet many of us could be rich or famous if we took out all the other factors (family, friends, relationships, not even caring what we do for work and focusing on a dollar amount) and just went full throttle with our career. But I’m not willing to put all that aside, and moving to New York City would have forced me, even in some minor way, to do that. Again, choices.
Ed left because he was fired and his wife cheated on him. I wasn’t forced to make a big life change in that way, but it’s good to know that maybe I did the right thing anyway without having to find out what would happen. It’s easy to become just another cog in the publishing machine in NYC. Being where I am … not only is there less competition, it’s also giving me some breathing room, and allows me to focus on the things that are really important.
As Ed told his dad, who wanted him to go back to New York City to his “real life” and not take the safe road: “For me, taking the risk was coming back here and doing all this. Staying in New York with the big job? That would have been the safe road.”
Besides, being a writer? I can do that anywhere. That’s pretty cool.
BOWLING IS COOL AFTER ALL
At what point, exactly, did I go from being the guy who would go with friends or a girl to a bowling alley as part of an evening’s worth of fun to the guy who cynically sits back and laughs at the “low-class” people who waste time by doing something “that’s not even a sport?” It’s good to be back on the other side again. And soon I’ll have my official Stuckeybowl bowling shirt to prove it.
A POSITIVE ATTITUDE REALLY IS IMPORTANT
No, I don’t mean to get all Tony Robbins on you. I’m talking more about not being cynical and hip all the time. God, has that gotten old. And after a while, you begin to think that that’s the way that all people should be thinking. It becomes the norm, and it becomes ohhhhh such a comfortable place to be. Especially if you’re not doing anything else with your life.
Even bowling alley employees Phil (Michael Ian Black), Kenny (Mike Starr) and Shirley (Rachel Cronin) have something to teach us. Some would call Phil bizarre and a schemer. Some would call Kenny unfocused and odd (he works in a bowling alley, graduated from Tufts, is a pediatric nurse, makes his own root beer at home and spent time in jail). Some would call Shirley … well, just plain odd. But damn if these characters (and I use that term in the nicest way) don’t have something to contribute. And they’re getting along just fine in life, thank you. They’re sincere and doing things their own way.
LIFE IS EASIER THAN YOU THINK, BUT IT’S NOT BLACK AND WHITE
On a recent episode, a gym teacher failed a kid because he couldn’t pass a fitness test, and this failure hurt the kid’s chances for a scholarship. Now, the easy thing for us as the audience (and the writers) to do would be to instantly go against the big dumb gym teacher, and hope that Ed would represent the kid. But that didn’t happen.
The gym teacher wasn’t dumb, he made several good points and Ed wound up defending him in the lawsuit. Sure, I think that the writers sort of chickened out by having something from the past come up and having the case become more about revenge than grading truth, but the episode made an emotional point: Life isn’t full of just good guys in white hats and bad guys in black hats.
There’s a lot of gray too. And in that gray lies the most interesting parts of life. (Jeez, did I just channel Confucius or something?).
But make no mistake: We humans make life more difficult than it has to be. As Warren, the insecure high school kid (played with a perfect mix of nervousness and swagger by Justin Long) found out by reading Thoreau: Simplify. No, you don’t have to live in the woods and get rid of your TiVo and your CD collection. Just don’t mess up your life with needless bull.
In that same episode, Ed holds Thoreau’s Walden in his hand, alongside another book called Do Everything, written by a client who almost dies and now wants to live life to the fullest. Simplify, or do everything? Again, gray areas.
SLOW-PACED IS BETTER THAN FAST-PACED
It’s amazing how quickly we get nowhere when we are going too fast in our lives. People always think that bringing an intensity to their ambition, or their life in general, will be the power to make them happy, when actually it’s often the opposite that’s true. But slow pace doesn’t mean laziness. It actually takes another form: having the time to understand that it’s the little things in life that are not only most important but also have the most impact over time.
Slow pace makes things in life easier to grasp. Ed was on the fast track in the big city, and where did it get him? He was writing contracts in the back office of some law firm. He wasn’t even in court helping people. It took going back to Stuckeyville to have him get his bearings again. To find the balance. To slow down and realize why exactly he was living his life the way he was and where he was living it.
As Ed explained his getting fired/wife cheating story to his staff after taking over the bowling alley: “I know what you’re thinking … worst day of my life, right? Wrong. Best day of my life.” I liked the way the director showed Phil nodding his head in agreement. It would have been easy to have the quirky Phil just roll his eyes or say something flippant. But damn, the people behind the scenes of Ed (Rob Burnett, Jon Beckerman, executive producer David Letterman and a group of writers and directors who know how to mix the cleverness with heart and emotion) truly know what they are doing.
WITHOUT MUSIC, YOU WILL HAVE A SHALLOW, HORRIBLE EXISTENCE
Yeah, I know, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. That’s why we spend so much money on good speakers. But I mean it’s vitally important to the people we become, much like the way books and relationships help create us. I could type many words about how every single aspect of Ed works magically: the flawless cast (including Ed’s married best friends Mike and Nancy, played to perfection by Josh Randall and Jana Marie Hupp), the small touches that make every situation ring true (the ongoing $10 bets between Ed and Mike), the minor characters that pop up on a consistent basis who are not just forgotten like on many shows, the on-location filming in New Jersey (the show wouldn’t work as well in some fake studio), but the music is also a major part of the show.
The writers are — dare I say it — brilliant in their choice of music: Marshall Crenshaw, the Foo Fighters, Alison Kraus, the Dandy Warhols, the Waitresses, Tony Bennett. And any show that can make Peter Cetera, Neil Diamond and Foreigner seem fresh again is pretty damn amazing. This music isn’t just used as hip aural wallpaper; it conveys a mood, a feeling, and every episode has at least one scene where the music is actually in the forefront and not the background. Note to NBC: make an Ed soundtrack and you’ll sell a ton of copies. Sell ’em in bowling alleys as well as Sam Goody.
FUCK, I’VE BEEN WASTING TOO MUCH TIME
Take my relationship with women (please! — bud-ding-boom! Thank you, I’m here all week!). I went from the guy who dated on a regular basis to the guy who stays in on Friday nights watching car crashes on FOX. Part of this is because, well, I’m no longer a bar type of guy (if I ever was, actually), and most of my friends live out of town or are married.
But, again, these are just excuses. My best friend has always told me to “just do it.” Now, lame Nike slogans aside, he has a point. Instead of being home every single Friday and Saturday night convincing myself that it’s better to stay in than do something I don’t want to do (which isn’t a bad philosophy — I think people should stay in more), it doesn’t get me any closer to a solution, especially since it’s so easy to get into a comfortable rut.
Where was I? Oh, yeah, women. You know what happens when you sit around all the time waiting for some perfect person to come along? You turn 35 … watching cars crash on FOX on Friday nights. The reason I bring this up (and I better make a connection to Ed before this starts to sound like a therapy session) is that the show has taught me something. It would be so easy for me to say that the one I’m attracted to on Ed is Carol Vessey, played by the jawdroppingly pretty Julie Bowen. But, if I was really honest with myself, I’m not sure she’d be the first one I’d ask out.
I’m attracted to Molly, played by Lesley Boone, the one that many would put in the category of “the not-so-in-shape sidekick.” She’s funny, she’s got a great attitude, she’s smart, she’s a great person. Damn, why haven’t I been looking for that my whole life? What the hell is that all about?
Not to mention all the time I’ve wasted not saving money, not getting a house, not getting … well, lots of stuff. Hell, if Ed, a guy who got fired from his great paying job and divorced from his wife can still make a future for himself, why can’t I?
BUT, IN GENERAL, I’M GOING ABOUT THINGS THE RIGHT WAY
Maybe one of the reasons that Ed has touched me in such a strong way is that (besides the great writing, flawless cast and terrific “feel” the show has) many of the main ideas put forth on the show reinforce the way I’ve been going about my life already.
I like being the “nice” guy (a girl I dated once told me this was my flaw — because women saw me as the “buddy” who would act nice to all women, not just to my girlfriend, so why should a women want to be with me? We stopped dating after that). I like my attitude. I like my sense of humor. I like how I treat other people. I like how I put friends ahead of other things on my list.
Sure, a lot of it is personal. The character of Ed is a lot like me, I guess (and all the pop culture references on the show — seems like the writers spent a week in my head). If he wasn’t, the impact of the show wouldn’t have been as immediate (though it would have hit me eventually). But it goes much deeper than that. The show illustrates that, yeah, things are probably going to be OK with the way I’m living my life (except, of course, with what I said above).
THERE IS SUCH A THING AS A PEANUT BUTTER AND BACON SANDWICH
But I haven’t tried one yet. I’ll keep you posted.
I know, I know: Taking my cues from a TV show? But we’re not talking about Jackass or Cops here (though I guess you could make the argument that you can learn a lot about life from watching Cops — namely, don’t shoot your husband over a pack of cigarettes, and if you ever see a film crew coming up your driveway, be on your best behavior).
But Ed is a slice of life. A very American slice of life that rings true in many ways. I think we can all agree that since life can take many twists and turns, and you really don’t know what’s going to happen next, it’s great to find a little help, a little guidance, a little reassurance wherever we can get it.
I just happen to find mine in a place called Stuckeyville.