Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Christmas Sermon For An American Catholic Situation

I heard a very bland, nondescript sermon last night at Christmas Eve Mass. I know I could have given a better sermon to a community of American Catholics, many of them being the once- or twice-a-year congregants who come only at Christmas and/or Easter. This is the sermon I would have given to them, but it's a sermon that speaks to the global human family in just about any faith (or non-faith) perspective as well:

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What is my Christmas wish for all of you, for all of us? What is it that the Catholic Church should want for all its people? Let's get one thing straight: Following Church teaching and obeying Church doctrine have their place. There is a purpose, a reason, for engaging in spiritual discipline - to become a better person. More specifically, it is to become more like the One whose birth is being celebrated today. That, in short, is why we're here -- to publicly acknowledge that we're trying to become more like Jesus, the Christ, and that being more like Christ is our highest aspiration as human persons. This forms the heart of everything, and I don't think any of you would disagree.

So, in trying to be like Christ, what can we gain from this Christmas celebration in this American situation in 2012? We gather in the wake of an awful event in Newtown, Connecticut, an event in which children - just like the ones who participated in the pageant during the Gospel reading; just like the child in a manger whose birth is celebrated today - had their lives so tragically snuffed out. Our hearts are heavy and a part of us is scared. We realize anew that this life is so tenuous, which makes it that much more important to make it count. It is for that reason that Christians around the world worship today. We want to be more like Christ, to be more like the human person who modeled a Godly life for all people. We are here because we want to be more like the man who showed us, in living form and flesh, the ways of God the creator. 

One of the foremost ways in which Jesus showed us how to follow the path of God is to model a nonviolent way of being, to not injure others in any way, shape or form. Jesus, though being persecuted and killed, told Peter to put away his sword. He did not lash out in vengeance at Pontius Pilate or the Jewish religious leaders. He said from the cross, "Father, forgive them." He accepted the death penalty though being entirely innocent. As Philippians 2 verse 6 says, Jesus, though being in very nature God, did not deem equality with God something to be clung to. Jesus, living his one human life, showed the world for all time that nonviolence is a paramount virtue, a core part of what it means to live like God, to live as God wants His children to live. In the book of the prophet Isaiah, we are reminded that "God's ways are not our ways." This is, in many ways, the toughest thing to remember about our lives of faith. We have so many instincts and longings as human beings, but our goal is to be more like the God and author of all life, of all creation. It is not meant to be easy. It is not meant to be a quick fix. It is not meant to be something that comes naturally.

So it is with our relationship to nonviolence. It is easy to want revenge. It is easy to snap in five seconds, 10 seconds, or 15 seconds, and say something we instantly regret. During these stressful and emotional times of the holidays, it is easy to do something that causes injury to another person. It is easy to lose control in a brief period of time. We know this. We're human. We - like the lives we live - are frail.

My friends, it is not my place nor the place of the church to say anything about what any government or law enforcement agency should do about guns. That's not meant for this night and this place. What I can say, and what the Church should promote, is the path for all of us to take as individuals, as believers, as people yearning for meaning after a tragedy that has shattered us and shaken us to the core as Americans. Nonviolence is what we can do to respond to what happened in Newtown. Nonviolence is what we can take away from this Christmas, the gift of the baby Jesus that can nourish us and sustain us for the road ahead. Nonviolence is what we can do to live in a way that's closer to Jesus, a way that's more like the God whose ways are not our ways.

Doctrinal purity and correct religious expression have their place, but remember -- they are only meant as guideposts to the only real goal that matters: being more like Jesus, living a life that is faithful to God. Many of you, as visitors, might be coming to mass for the first time in a long time. This does not make you bad Catholics. Anything but. You're here because you want to be more like Jesus. You're here because you want to find something that will lift you up and give you hope. 

You've come to the right place, and you should know that Jesus - who reached out to people in all sorts of situations - accepts you just as you are. That's more than enough for Him, and that's more than enough for the Church today. You are welcomed and embraced in the fullness of love... the same love that is quick to forgive and rich in compassion.

For you, special visitors, as well as our regulars here at the Franciscan Renewal Center, the attempt to be more like Jesus is why we're all here. With the shadow of Newtown lingering over us, may this celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord - the baby in a manger, with no crib for a bed - may we renew our practice of nonviolence, to be more like the One who did not injure anyone else despite having very legitimate reasons for doing so.

May the Prince of Peace bless our broken world with peace, and let that peace being inside each and every one of us, with a commitment to nonviolence that the Son of God so powerfully manifested on this planet in his one and only human life.

Let there be peace on earth this Christmas, and let it begin with me.

Merry Christmas from all of us here at the Franciscan Renewal Center.... in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

Loathing the Loathing: A Call For A Tennis Fan Truce

I am a quixotic person. I tilt at windmills. Paul Wellstone, he of the 1 vote in many 98- or 99-1 United States Senate votes, was a foremost political hero of mine. I fight losing battles. Hey, I'm a political lefty. Moreover, Jesus fought losing battles.

Oh, geez -- there goes Matt, comparing himself to Jesus... or at least, that's what I can imagine a few readers saying at that point. Yeah, I just don't say things exactly the way they should be said every single time.

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In the two paragraphs above, the first one was dead-dog serious: There are battles I want to continue to fight. The second paragraph was meant to convey a point: People acquire very specific notions of what it means to behave well, and by golly, when public figures cross those lines, they often stay on a shiznit list forever.

The battle I want to fight is the battle against loathing among fans of men's tennis. This crusade has animated a part of my tennis writings and tweets over the past five years or so, and its necessity was raised yesterday when Roger Federer -- the men's tennis player I'm partial to -- broke a two-and-a-half-year drought at the majors by winning Wimbledon, and then made a remark after his victory that did not sit well with a considerable portion of the online tennis community.

I surround myself with plenty of Federer fans on my Twitter timeline, but I include substantial portions of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic fans as well, to provide a rich sampling of opinion and color from a sport that has added much to my life experience. Similarly, my political Twitter feed -- @RealHowardBeale -- includes just as many conservatives as liberals. I don't go on Twitter or any interactive medium so that I can only hear what my side, my "tribe," has to say. People don't learn much that way. People don't grow much that way.

This is an essay meant for all tennis fans, but my story must necessarily begin with a survey of non-Federer fans in my timeline when Federer notched his victory. Dozens of Nadal and Djokovic tweeps met the moment with class and a sporting mentality. I recognized some of them specifically in tweets during the trophy presentation and in the 30-45 minutes after it. Sadly, though, an equal amount of tennis tweets following Federer's win conveyed a palpable sense not just of disappointment, but disgust. Most tweeps were sad that Andy Murray lost, a sadness that is shared and embraced by any sports fan with a heart that hasn't frozen over. Murray's post-match speech on Centre Court moved me to tears. I want him to win a major someday, and I reckon that most tennis fans feel the same way.

It was with great perplexity, then, that I beheld the following post-match chain reaction on Twitter: Federer said that he felt Murray would win at least one major, but a vocal subsection of Twitter pronounced the Swiss to be classless and appalling in his behavior. This, just a week and a half after a huge kerfuffle emerged from Federer's revelation that he laughed for 10 minutes after Lukas Rosol beat Nadal... the laughter coming out of disbelief, not haughty enjoyment of Rafa's plight.
To the non-Federer fans in the audience, let me share with you a few things: As stated above, I am a political liberal. I want the athletes I root for as a sports fan to be good people, to exhibit good values. There is a certain connection between the athletes I root for and the values they represent. Yet, athletics being what it is, it is almost invariably true that successful athletes lead lifestyles different from the common person. It's also true that athletes come from so many different backgrounds, meaning that as much as I might want to envision or think of an athlete in my own image, I'm never going to get a perfect package.

Federer's lifestyle is not one I can remotely begin to identify with. There is an extravagance which certainly doesn't mesh with my sensibilities, a sometimes aristocratic bearing which smacks of overwhelming elitism. Speaking to non-Federer fans, you know these feelings better than I do. You can't begin to bear this part of Federer's identity. I get that. Moreover, that's not a problem. Rafa, the simple low-key fisherman without the champagne-and-caviar tastes, is the kind of man I and my late Czech father would identify with in terms of a daily lifestyle. War-surviving Novak Djokovic has fashioned a life story that -- to a neutral observer -- would rate as more inspiring than anything Federer has managed to do. It's great that many people on this planet find more to like about Nadal or Djokovic than Federer. I am not here to try to sell you on Federer as an identity or, more urgently, as a person.

What I am here to do is to draw a distinction -- a distinction that so often gets blurred, much as in American politics. You may not prefer a given person, image, or modus operandi. Your heart may not be captured by a stylistic imprint, an essence, a vibe, a worldview. Yet, your lack of preference for that person/image/worldview/essence does not make it bad or value-negative. Human beings -- in politics, tennis, religion, anything under the sun -- have, in the internet age, lost sight of the difference between a life-and-death contrast and, on the other hand, varying flavors or shapes of legitimate competing ideas.

If an athlete does really bad things -- Michael Vick's dogfighting, Ben Roethlisberger's aggressive behavior toward younger women, Shawn Kemp's or Antonio Cromartie's fathering of several children with several different sexual partners -- the notion of said athlete going on a fan's black list is perfectly reasonable, even enlightened. If an athlete doesn't grow up, thereby failing to honor his/her compact with the ticket-buying public, there's an undeniably appropriate quality to any subsequent attempt on the part of fans to shun that athlete.

With Roger Federer, no such dirt exists. No, you don't have to like the guy. No, you don't have to see the world through a Federer fan's lens. You don't have to prefer the way he plays tennis. You should, however, be able to muster up enough humanity to avoid the blackest forms of loathing.

What is Federer's great sin, a la Vick/Roethlisberger/Kemp/Cromartie/Adam "Pac Man" Jones/Tiger Woods or any other athletes who have truly engaged in shameful behavior at some point in their careers? Federer runs a charitable foundation that, to my knowledge, has not become one of the shadowy, flimsy shops that fails to give donors (and recipients of aid) a good return on their investments. He has, by all accounts, led a monogamous life. Sure, could there be a Joe Paterno-style expose in the future? There's always that chance, but remember: This is not an attempt to deify Federer or give him the kind of veneer that allowed Paterno to slip under the radar at Penn State when Jerry Sandusky's abuses went unpunished. This is merely an attempt to allow Federer's humanity to be seen for what it is: maybe not your own flavor, but not anything worth loathing.

This brings us back to Federer's remark that he hoped Murray would win at least one major. I can see why another human being -- one with a different worldview or wiring compared to mine (much as a conservative differs from my left-leaning outlook) -- would say, "Ya know, I just don't agree with or prefer that way of handling that kind of situation. Federer should have remained generic and applauded Murray on a great tournament without applying pressure to him." Again, I understand why Federer's remark would create a wince or a chagrined reaction of some sort.

What I don't get is why that remark was so strongly perceived by a decent-sized chunk of Tennis Twitterville as somehow classless. Is Federer perceived as dishonest when he says that? Is Federer willfully trying to place pressure on Murray? Sadly, I suspect one of those two answers applies to the (not representative) subsection of non-Federer fans who pounced on that remark with such passion on Sunday. The quickness to find fault in a Federer comment was striking because, well, Federer had just won a major for the first time in a long while. When Federer was winning majors with more regularity, the fault-finding-in-a-phrasing police became a numbingly regular part of a post-major experience for Federer fans.

Here's a quick pair of thoughts for those inclined to view Federer's post-victory remarks in the worst possible light:

1) What is your handbook for what to say in moments of victory? That's not a snarky question; it's serious. If certain remarks are inappropriate, what is the range of acceptable ones? See, this stuff gets tricky in a hurry. What might initially seem to be inappropriate to your own way of thinking is really just something that sits outside your realm of preference or your field of taste. This leads to...

2) When judging an athlete's post-event remarks, specifically those to his/her defeated opponent, always be ready to make the distinction between, on one hand, "acceptable or unacceptable" versus "preferred or not preferred." Those are two very different distinctions, the kinds of distinctions that should draw a bright red line between actions and statements that justify the true loathing of an athlete, and -- on the other hand -- actions and statements that merely lead you to prefer one athlete's way of being over another's, without enmity or rancor.

This is where I'd like to speak directly to fellow fans of Roger Federer.

You felt some of the larger online tennis community's displeasure yesterday. You rediscovered what it was like to stand in the winner's circle after two and a half years of watching Nadal and Djokovic fans catch the heat. The absorption of that outside negative energy should serve as reinforcement for the good Federer fans, those who have always been quick to congratulate Nadal and Djokovic fans in the aftermath of a sweet win for the Mallorcan or the Serb. For the Federer fans who gloated when Nadal lost to Rosol -- only to watch Federer come within two points of losing to Julien Benneteau the very next day -- this can become an eye-opener, a moment that leads to greater peace among men's tennis fans in this golden era for the sport. The fact that Roger Federer endured such withering and unfair scrutiny during his foremost years should now make it easier to appreciate, two and a half years later, what Nadal and Djokovic fans have had to put up with... especially today. This really is a great time for a tennis fan truce.

It is especially true in matters of religion, ideology and politics, but it's not very different in men's tennis: Human beings lash out in bitterness and frustration when attacked or made to feel lower by another subgroup. The various factions in men's tennis have all taken such a pounding from the other sides that they're the first to loathe those other subgroups and view their favorite players in the most negative light possible, damn the evidence. This is the tribalism that moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt speaks to in his excellent new election-year (in America) book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics And Religion. It is a book every American should read in advance of the Obama-Romney campaign, and it is the book Federer, Nadal and Djokovic fans would do well to read as well.

In conclusion, the three men who have done so much for the sport of tennis over the past nine years should be lauded for their achievements. As people, they represent three distinct ways of being: Swissness with affluence and a regal bearing; Spanish island-ness with a strong family emphasis on hard work and simplicity; Serbian-ness with a burning desire to strive and achieve and make a positive name for oneself and one's country, driven by survival instincts and a certain degree of nationalism. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic represent such different things to many people. We, as human creatures, are different and -- moreover -- meant to be different, so it is good and right that these three tennis players not be seen in the same ways by everyone. It's good and right that each player is preferred over and against the others by a subsection of tennis's global fan base.

However, all of this exists within a context of preferences, not Good versus Evil or Life-Affirming versus Life-Squelching. One should prefer Djokovic over Federer as one prefers strawberry over vanilla; one should prefer Federer over Nadal as one prefers organ music over guitar music. It is entirely true that many fans of the Big Three are terrific tweeps, gracious in all circumstances and reflective of the best of humanity. However, when one person's victory is met by a desire to quit tennis (what, the past two and a half years suddenly ceased to be enjoyable?) and one's perfectly reasonable remarks are viewed as somehow unsporting, it would seem that for far too many tennis fans, a good-versus-evil tribalism is alarmingly prevalent.

Federer fans, Nadal fans, Djokovic fans... none of us should feel it important or necessary to loathe one of these three terrific players who have contributed to this remarkable time in the sport's history. Here's a compromise, however: If anyone feels it necessary to continue to engage in loathing, why not keep it private instead of taking the fun away for the fans of the victorious player?

I have rather enjoyed the past two and a half years of men's tennis, even though my favorite player didn't win very much at the majors. Moreover, I'm quite aware of the extent to which Federer fans have been quick to gleefully gloat when Nadal or Djokovic suffered some form of setback, so I know whence this revulsion comes. This is therefore the perfect time to make an appeal for mutual respect and decency... not just from your side, but from mine.

Tribalism, in any field of endeavor or any aspect of human beings' sociocultural pursuits, has never worked out particularly well for the global family of all creation.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Mad Men, The Season Five Finale: Don and Megan Everywhere

There's too much to neatly summarize after the season finale of a show as densely layered as Mad Men. I'll look ahead to the final two seasons of the show later this week, but that demands a separate post. For now, here are several collected observations about the series, almost all of them focusing on Don and Megan. The focus on Don and Megan to the exclusion of other characters might seem excessive, but the final 20 minutes of the season five finale took us into the deeper world of their marriage than ever before. Moreover, this is a marriage which isn't nearly as stable or happy as the first two-thirds of the season might have led us to initially expect.

On with the show, now that we have at least 35 weeks (probably more) to wait for season six... and talk about what has happened over the past 12 Sundays:

In my mind, the essential takeaways from the exploration and expression of the Don-Megan relationship in the season 5 finale are as follows:

1) There is, as always in Mad Men, a great deal of ambiguity and tension running through these events and the inner workings of the characters involved. Season five leaves us with questions more than certainties.

2) Megan is reduced to wanting work for a paycheck. There is a diminishment, if not an exhaustion, of passion for the work, of desire to do the work to advance noble ideals or give expression to something True and Beautiful. Megan’s self-loathing is so high and her confidence so low because there’s a part of her which realizes that “the struggle” has lost much of its romantic or revolutionary qualities. Yet, the alternative to abandoning the struggle is a home-bound boredom that is soul-crushing in a different way. She is utterly trapped, hemmed in by both per parents and by the two dimensions of Don: the one who is a provider/connection/insider and the one who is her spouse, the one who carries a strong set of expectations toward her, many of which have been unfulfilled.

3) It’s not as though Betty was “content” to be a stay-at-home mom. Betty thought that’s what was expected of her, and she took her cues that way but at cost to her emotional well-being. With Megan, the trajectory is neatly – and strikingly – inverted. Megan established an appreciable degree of emotional separation from her parents and displayed a strong independence of mind, but as she goes along, she’s more affected (not less) by what her parents say. She didn’t luck into a photo-shoot gig the way Betty did, but she finds herself with the gig and trying to fight off boredom… not entirely unlike Betty. There’s a heavy dose of irony at work in Megan’s life/career trajectory, relative to Betty’s… and in Don’s realization of this reality, which is why the final scene of season five (after what was a largely forgettable episode, it should be said) struck the perfect chord of ambiguity.

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Don’s toothache as reflective of the more central problem in his life: That he can avoid facing up to his problems and the expectations that play a large part in perpetuating them.

What season five unpacked was the extent to which Don wanted Megan to fit a certain role and mold in his life. She hasn’t met Don’s expectations, and as a result, he feels so distant from her, looking at her in the film room the way he looked at Betty in The Carousel – longing for something that either once was (and is consigned to the past) or never truly existed.

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Someone I talked to online asked this very penetrating question: "Has Don grown enough that he realizes that he’s still connected to the world, to other people, even if Megan has let him down?"

My response to such a thoughtful query:

The question is certainly one of the two or three foremost questions Don must address at a deeper level. (For me, the other big Don question is: “Can Don allow Megan or anyone else to live on their own terms – not only by letting others sort out their own pursuits of happiness, but in conveying full and unreserved emotional support to them?”)

Being alone is, essentially, feeling alone. People can be surrounded and yet “be” alone. The alone-ness emerges in the mind, in times when one’s worldview or wavelength is not shared by anyone. It is indeed a mistake on Don’s part to believe that he is alone, but I think that in season five – compared to the previous four seasons – this belief is more the RESULT of his behavior than the CAUSE of it. This is an important distinction to make.

In seasons 1-4, Don’s belief that he was alone led to his philandering and such. In season five, it’s different: Don’s internal expectations led him to think that his actions (and his life with Megan) could take him to a different mental world, into a different psychological state. He sees, though, that for all the ways in which he has changed – for all the cheating he has (temporarily) ceased to engage in – his psyche hasn’t. Therefore, his belief that he is alone is that much stronger, in my opinion.

The scene with Peggy in the movie theater is so perfect because Peggy is the one person whom Don understands – and is understood by – on a very deep level. Don’s line about helping people to succeed and then allowing them to move on is not entirely true, given all the times Don smacked down or ignored Peggy over the years; however, it’s still substantially true – Don was Peggy’s foremost mentor and gave her a chance to flourish in the advertising business. If Don could take his attitude to Peggy and then apply it to everyone else, he’d be in great shape, but of course, no one else is quite like Peggy.

I think one can see from this episode that the head space and thoughtful attention Don denied Peggy this season were devoted to Megan instead. Yet, amidst turmoil in his relationships with both women, Don is much more able (and willing) to allow Peggy to be happy on her own terms, compared to Megan. Why is this so? The answer deserves a stand-alone essay, but the short version is that Peggy is someone who has met Don’s internal expectations. She’s doing the things Don has always envisioned her as doing (and has needed to do) ever since she first caught Don’s attention. Megan – with a layered quality not evident in previous episodes – definitively revealed in the season five finale just how fully her life path has veered from Don’s expectations and hopes. Don didn’t want another Betty, but this feels all so familiar, albeit with some underlying differences.

It sets up a fascinating season six.

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Megan's character, more than any other character in season five, has created profound and rather entrenched divisions among Mad Men fans. The big raps against Megan take multiple forms, the chief one being that she doesn’t fill or command the screen the way other characters do. (This is true, but it is presented as a knock against both Megan's character and the acting of Jessica Pare; it doesn't dawn upon Megan's and Jessica Pare's critics that there could be a point to Megan's lack of electricity or depth in a number of scenes from the past season.)

A response follows:

Has it ever occurred to Megan's critics that this Zou Bisou Bisou charmer, this person with bubbly optimism and a hatred of cynical Debbie Downers, this person who scooped up little children and cleaned up spilled milkshakes, is so much better at the hard sell – the creation of an image – than at the performance of everyday work in an everyday life? Has it occurred to Megan's critics that this unmistakable dullness (it's true -- it does exist on the screen especially when compared to Joan's or Roger's characters, among others...) is in itself a powerful commentary… not on the 1960s or Emile Calvet’s socialism or the value of being countercultural, but on the ultimate Mad Men truth — that happiness must be found from within? Isn't Megan's hollowness compared to other characters a startling revelation of the fact that for all of her effusive and attractive sex appeal in her best moments, the reality of being married to Don Draper in "Tomorrowland" - which did indeed seem like a fantasy come true for her - has NOT automatically delivered lasting happiness?

It’s also very much worth noting that the construct underlying Mad Men’s central truths is that people are rarely (or anything close to fully) what they first seem to be on the surface, far more layered and complicated than appearances or positive attributes might first suggest. Megan, due to her emergence on Mad Men in the middle of the series (season four of seven), is not as wholly developed as other characters, without question. However, she’s no longer the hologram/cipher she was in the first third of season five, and now, she’s not even the demanding, emotionally strong person she was in the middle third of this just-completed season. She’s been brought low, her confidence utterly shaken, bringing her through the full gamut of emotions and – instructively – becoming far more like Betty than Don ever could have imagined.

Different person, different background, different outlook, but the same central weaknesses. Don thought he had found such a distinctly different second wife, but he hasn’t. It makes season 6 quite fascinating.

I think we’ll see this late-arriving character get developed more deeply in 2013, enabling us to see that the undeniable flatness and dullness of this character (well, when she wasn’t Zou Bisou-Bisou-ing or raging at Don outside a HoJo…) were and are quite intentional.

I could be wrong, but I still trust Mr. Weiner enough to see what he’ll do with Megan. As a fierce critic of “Tomorrowland,” I think “The Phantom” has done something(s) far more constructive, reasonable and – most of all – honest with Megan’s character.

It’s instructive to point out that Megan has never felt more like a full, whole character than right now, after the completion of the season. She’s finally experienced the feeling that was hinted at in previous episodes, but never as fully as in “The Phantom”: self-loathing. This is the other side of the “Zou Bisou Bisou/Tomorrowland” person who fit multiple fantasy images and was relentlessly positive about everything around her.

Because Megan feels this way, Mad Men has retained its honesty and its textured, multi-dimensional, “appearances are deceiving” quality. The development of Megan’s character was always going to, in a certain sense, “slow down” the progress of season five by forcing a comparatively new character to get more screen time as Don’s wife, thereby taking screen time away from other characters. Yet, when tasked with developing Megan’s character – a task that must be done much more forcefully next season – Matt Weiner did a superb job in peeling back the onion and showing us new layers of this person, who is now far more complicated than we first thought.

When Mad Men shows us new dimensions of darkness/sadness/ugliness in a character, the show so often – if not always – feels more right and more honest. On a less ordinary, less thoughtful television show, a character like Megan would be patently non-entertaining and unambiguously disappointing. On Mad Men, the intentionality with which Betty Draper portrays unspoken confusion, with which Megan Calvet Draper conveys a surprising degree of flatness and dullness, is unmistakable and subtly powerful.

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Another online commentator explored Don's psychological state and his intentions – does he want to cheat on Megan or not? – in the final scene of season five and Sunday night's episode.

My opinion:

I think Don is more thoughtful and contemplative at the end of season five – and not as deeply disturbed or unsettled compared to seasons 1-4 – for a very simple reason that’s not particularly connected to visual cues: He’s been brought back to the beginning of another cycle.

After all he’s been through, after being paralyzed with fear over the prospect that he might one day be unfaithful to Megan, he now realizes that his marriage is not the fantasy it originally seemed to be. Even with Megan, this person who is different in temperament from Betty on many levels, he finds a situation which carries with it all too many echoes of what he went through with Betty. Don finds himself in a most unexpected psychological position, with a wife whom he thought would be so refreshingly, positively different for him… but hasn’t proved to be.

He has to give this matter some honest thought… the kind of thought he hasn’t had to devote to his life since his pre-Megan days.

I think he’s not ready to make a decision as season five ends, but he definitely does feel alone, or at least, far more alone than he has ever felt before as Megan Draper’s husband. He is in a place that demands a lot of reflection on his life, chiefly: 1) Who he is, and 2) how his expectations should/n’t govern his attitudes and behavior toward other people, especially Megan.

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I think that Don has told Megan the broad outline and most of the general details of his backstory, but not everything in its most minute detail. I’m of the view that there will come a time in season six when one of these minute details will surface, and it will carry powerful storytelling resonance for the series, not to mention a great deal of weight for Don’s and Megan’s characters.

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Monday, June 4, 2012

Mad Men And The Power Of The Unspoken

The power of life is not just found in words and actions, but in the scenes we encounter and the silences found within them. One of the most impressive aspects of Mad Men is that it is able to speak so powerfully... by not speaking.

Sunday night's episode didn't just convey a number of seminal events in the series; it did so with the unspoken power Matthew Weiner so deftly uses to his advantage... and to the benefit of viewers.

First, though, some background:

Think of some of the more unforgettable moments in the history of Mad Men: Peggy, Joan and Faye in the elevator; Peggy and Dawn, silently looking at each other in Peggy's apartment; Don and Peggy looking into each others' eyes in multiple situations (the hospital; the end of season three; episode 11 of season five, one week ago); Joan and Greg after Joan's rape; Joan and Lane in the second half of the season five opener, and then later in season five after Lane punched Pete -- these and so many other moments gained power because of the silences between the artfully-arranged words of a first-class Mad Men script. Jon Hamm, Christina Hendricks, Elisabeth Moss, Jared Harris - the best of the best actors on this show convey an astonishing range of emotions in and with their faces, especially their eyes. Much as it's easy to focus on the ball in any sporting event when non-ball action is often more determinative of a team's successes or failures, it's also true that in a dramatic presentation, it's easy to focus on verbal communication when non-verbal communication is just as  important.

Exploring this theme of the unspoken a little more deeply, consider the ending of "At The Codfish Ball" from earlier in season five. The episode unpacked the thought worlds and emotions of five characters in particular: Megan, her two parents, Don, and Sally. When the five of them are shown sitting at the table near the very end of the episode, their simple presence together in one wide-frame camera shot says so much in itself about what had happened over the previous 62 minutes of television. The unspoken act of gathering those five characters is meant to convey a theme, much as an elevator shot of three professional women is meant to convey another theme. Showing Don and Peggy in one extended scene develops their relationship and, with it, the flow of the series. Showing Peggy and Joan in a particular kind of scene makes a commentary on the different choices and paths taken by women in the 1960s. You get the picture.

In Sunday night's episode - the penultimate one of season five - there were so many unspoken scenes that carried such an enormous amount of weight and, moreover, resonance. Forget the dialogue of the characters; the mere presence of certain people in certain places became a part of the narrative Matt Weiner intended to advance.

Lane wanting to initially commit suicide inside a Jaguar shows how utterly trapped Lane was by the mere idea of going back to England in shame and humiliation.

Don's final scene with Glen - a boy who created an outsized persona for himself in a younger age (wanting to be Betty's husband) - paired two people who have experience at reinventing themselves... which is precisely what Lane was unwilling and unable to do.

Betty's scene with Sally showed that for all of Betty's weaknesses as a mother and for all of Sally's misgivings about her biological mother's integrity, the two are still bound by a connection that can never change or disappear. Betty didn't experience a transformative moment - she still relished gaining the upper hand over and against a flustered and worried Megan - but she was able to experience a pure moment of affirming motherhood, a moment that transcended both her struggles and Sally's frequent (but not quite permanent) hatred of her, a hatred built by - yes - Betty's reactions to Glen Bishop.

The way Joan was treated at the partner's meeting was in many ways defined by silences between and among words. The way Megan and Glen awkwardly stared at each other presented a moment in which two very uncertain people - out of their element, worried about their respective partners - were trying to find more of a foothold in lives that felt very unsettling for them.

All of this was wrapped inside an episode in which Lane's death provided a powerful message, albeit one drenched in unbearable sadness: while reinventing oneself cannot and should not be a lie - a foundation for deceit - human beings do have to start over on many times in their life journeys, finding new ways of bringing an authentic and whole self into new, paralyzing, and witheringly complex situations. Lane reinvented himself in a positive way by embracing the good elements of American culture and its creative energy, but he lived a lie by trying to alter SCDP's books instead of asking Don - ironically, the man he trusted most in the workplace - to help him out. (Don would have done so, too.) Moreover, Lane loved America to the point of death: so great was his desire to stay in the country and succeed on a specific set of terms that when he felt he couldn't do so, he gave up.

Mad Men unites themes and motifs this way on a regular basis. What's seen and unseen is all of one piece. Verbals and visuals merge to create a larger message which can be seen, yes, but also heard... and felt... and absorbed. It's hard to describe with words alone, and that's precisely why the realm of the unspoken speaks so loudly on the best television show in America.


Monday, May 28, 2012

Mad Men, Season Five, Episode 11 - "The Other Woman"

This won't be the written product of a television critic, because that's not my job. I feel moved to write about Mad Men because it is - simply yet powerfully - the best television show I have ever seen, and probably will ever see, in my lifetime. No television show has ever examined the human condition with such painstaking detail, situational richness, and emotional complexity. Mad Men is not escapist television; it is in fact the very antithesis thereof. The series is one extended and searing portrait of life's difficult nature, a testament to the power of the forces - and the force of the powers - that create unbearably layered dilemmas and highly unsatisfactory choices in a markedly cruel and unfair world.

After Sunday night's eleventh episode of season five, "The Other Woman," it can be said that Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner has delivered to his audience a number of seminal moments in the life of his series, which has just two episodes left this season and only two seasons in the future. There are, unavoidably, television (or more precisely, "industry") issues that Weiner and Company are dealing with as Mad Men nears the finish line. The contractual status of Elisabeth Moss (Peggy Olson) might have had something to do with Sunday night's episode, but that's the stuff best left for the TV writers who cover the business as a whole. I can only comment on the quality of art and the level of storytelling at work in Mad Men, specifically as they relate to the show's portrait of the human person as a moral, ethical, sensual, relational, political, and economic creature.

There are several themes and motifs at the heart of Mad Men, but the number one theme and motif are clear. The central theme of Mad Men is that one must find happiness from within, on a spiritual-soul level, instead of defining oneself based on externals (especially possessions). The central motif of Mad Men, in accordance with the show's driving theme, is that outward appearances and statements are not to be seen as reflections of truth or as fully genuine indicators of the internal emotions of the show's characters.

This is not a feel-good show, even for all its moments of comedic genius. It is a show about the complexity of human persons and the situations they encounter because of said complexity. Such a landscape creates wrenching pressures, tangled calculations, and their bitter fruits: confusion and, usually, naughtiness. The mystery of the human person - presented authentically - will offer rays of light and hope, but the larger world of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is going to be a dark world more often than not. This was quite clear in season one, and so it should be no less true near the end of season five.

Enter Sunday night's episode.

If you hold the main theme and motif of Mad Men in the front of your mind, you should be able to see "The Other Woman" as a masterwork - not from the standpoint of a television critic, but as one who appreciates the message and identity behind the series.

First, let's deal with the motif of appearances not being what they seem:

Pete, Lane, Roger, Bert - they all express or (in Pete's case, claim) some degree of revulsion to the prostituting of Joan, but they vote, 4-0, to go ahead with the plan. The outwardly stated motives of those four men are not backed up by their actions or decisions. With the exception of Bert - whose private life has not received all that much scrutiny (he's an old fogey) - one can clearly see that Pete, Lane and Roger are all living substantial lies.

Don SAYS he doesn't want Megan to fail at acting, and intellectually, he probably doesn't. However, in his heart of hearts - at a gut level - he DOES want Megan to fail because it's clear that he resents the hell out of Megan for ditching advertising and therefore ditching his dream of having Megan around at all times... to control, to possess, to own... to own the way a man can own a Jaguar automobile... The way Don has established - in his mind - ownership of Peggy Olson's accomplishments and career satisfactions.

The way Don threw money at Peggy, a highly symbolic but extremely potent representation of how he would throw money at so many other relational problems in his past.

The way Don bought Polly (the Draper family dog) when he skipped Sally's birthday party.

The way he bought Betty something nice (a car, even!) after treating her like dirt.

The way he paid off Allison in season four after that ill-advised and drunken fling in his apartment.

In many ways, the only important person Don has never tried to buy off is Joan Holloway Harris. This is the woman who had spent the first 10 episodes of season five trying to establish not just sexual, but personal and relational independence... to get to the point where she could truly feel that she was not - and could not ever be - owned by another man. She finally broke away from Greg, who raped her years earlier but at a time when she could not see or create emotional independence - emotional ownership of herself in a non-work setting - as a realistic possibility. She acknowledged her lack of control in season five, being more vulnerable and empathic to Peggy than she's ever been before. Joan had revealed new dimensions of an emerging interior happiness which almost every Mad Men character fails to attain, Ken Cosgrove and (to a lesser but real extent) Henry Francis being the two conspicuous exceptions.

The conversation with Don at the bar in the previous week's episode, "The Christmas Waltz," was powerful not just because of the abundant chemistry and self-revelation in that scene (not all of that dialogue was truth-telling, but all of it WAS revelatory; that's a key distinction in any discussion of Mad Men), but because the conversation with Don brought Joan to the realization that in her new existence - one spent dealing with a divorce, a new baby, and a nagging but well-meaning mother - she had to define her life not on the basis of her level of control, but on her emotional well-being.

Joan's firmness with Roger; her openness with Peggy; her courage in front of Greg and Greg's parents at the Italian restaurant; and her dialogue with Don all struck the right blend of assertiveness and surrender. Joan had steadily proven how to let go of the toxicity in her surroundings and still retain her best and most warmly human qualities. Joan grew to appreciate how to surrender to the forces she could not change and take charge of the forces she could master. Joan was on the precipice of joining Ken Cosgrove as a fully centered Mad Men character.

But ah, yes - things are not what they seem. Not when situations arise such as the one that confronted Joan in "The Other Woman." The Bible could not have told the story any better, but it is oh-so-real that at the end of Sunday's episode, Joan's haunted face reminds us of Jesus's words: "What profit it a man (woman) to gain the whole world" - to gain a five-percent share of SCDP, massively heightened status in the office, and a lifetime of financial security - "and forfeit his (her) soul in the process?"

That concept from Sacred Scripture is in many ways a mere rephrasing of the Mad Men theme: happiness must come from within, from the heart and the soul, from that place where - as Anna Draper (the saintly figure of Mad Men) told Dick Whitman - "I know everything about you, and I still love you."

What every Mad Men character needs to do is to love oneself in that fashion: to know the darkness within, to know the failures of self and the messiness of a cutthroat and plainly amoral business... and still love who you are each day. Loving one's own self - precisely when knowing the measure of one's own inadequacies and imperfections - will enable a person to have the courage to value that love over and against any financial gain, any material possession, when there is a conflict between the two... a conflict laid out in grand detail on Sunday night.

The fact that Matt Weiner turned a brilliant pitch by Ginsberg - "at last: something beautiful that you can truly own" - into the very conceit of Madison Avenue, the very idea all Mad Men characters must work to OVERTURN, NOT UPHOLD, in their personal lives - makes "The Other Woman" a supremely shining (and, paradoxically, dark) example of the series' central theme and motif, mingling in wondrous and spectacular detail. The ownership that every Mad Men character needs in life is the ownership of one's emotions and principles. a mastery of self which enables a person to be happy with oneself and sleep peacefully at night in the house of integrity.

Viewing a woman - or a Jaguar car - as a possession to be coveted, owned and controlled solely for one's own pleasure and desires? That's what Madison Avenue is about. That's what the worst aspects of Don Draper have always sought. That's what Roger Sterling and Pete Campbell so regularly pursue. It's what Herb, the auto dealers' executive who wanted that night with Joan, thirsted for in his life. Ginsberg - artfully crafted as this "alien, outside" figure throughout season five (albeit with minimal accumulated screen time) - is emotionally removed from the world of SCDP, enabling him to see all of this, and it's why he has the clarity (combined with the substantial natural talent) to come up with the perfect pitch line for Jaguar.

The interconnectedness of the plot lines, characters, and human portraits in Sunday night's episode was staggering enough. The ability of Weiner and his team to create so many inversions and ironic structures in the episode made "The Other Woman" that much more remarkable as a work of art... and this series delivers hugely impressive works of art even when it doesn't leave its audience reeling in the wake of earth-shattering events.

In an attempt to capture this last concept - inverting the trajectories of characters and overturning expectations, just when you think you have everything figured out - one can't comment on "The Other Woman" without noting that amidst all this darkness and bitter irony, the heroine of Mad Men can be seen as truly that: a heroine.

After seeing the agony of Joan's inner life, Mad Men viewers were able to witness a beautiful conclusion to an artfully tormenting 64 minutes of television: Peggy Olson, the second most important character on the show - the one who learned at the feet of Don Draper, the master - arrived at more money, status and power without having to sell her soul. In fact, as Freddy Rumsen told her, Don wouldn't have handled her situation any differently, something Don silently acknowledges in that unforgettable final scene.

Peggy is not bought off. Sure, Ted Chaough's money is considerable, but it doesn't matter whether Don can top the figure or not. Peggy knows that for the growth of her career and - far more important - her own self, she must step out of Don's shadow, taking ownership of her life in ways she never could at SCDP. As was the case in the conclusion of season three ("Shut The Door, Have a Seat"), Don is negotiating with Peggy to keep her on the team, but the terms of the exchange are different. Don no longer has a compelling reason to convince his protege to stay with him, on his team and in his office.

Don knows that he still takes Peggy for granted, and that's why his anger and nastiness give way to a knowing acknowledgment that Peggy must do this... for all the right reasons (not the wrong ones). In a masterful interweaving of storylines, Matt Weiner enabled Don's tensions with Megan and his concern for Joan to give way to this wrenching rollercoaster of emotions in which Peggy, the person he most deeply identifies with, becomes Don's best self.

You will recall that at numerous points in season five, Peggy took on so many of the qualities one would associate with the Don Draper of seasons one through three. She ducked out of the office for afternoon movies and hanky-panky. She wasn't emotionally available to her intimate partner (Abe), retracing the way Don behaved toward Betty. She was consumed by her work and identified herself by her achievements in the workplace. She continued to gain more money, power and responsibility, but none of those things made her feel happy. She needed to take ownership of her life from within.

When she smiles at the very end of "The Other Woman," instead of dissolving into a pool of tears, one can know - with certainty - not only that Peggy made the right decision for herself, but that she KNOWS she made the right decision for herself, and that she knows she made the right decision for herself for the right reasons at the right time.

So much emotional and spiritual wreckage fills the SCDP office at the end of this episode. All the men of SCDP - with Don being part of the dynamic, but less so than anyone else (there's an irony for you to contemplate!) - have won Jaguar, but at great cost to their integrity. This bastion of Madison Avenue has advanced up the corporate ladder by selling its collective soul. When Peggy walks out of SCDP for the last time - Don didn't want her to linger, after all - she's leaving this wreckage, this soul-sickness, this emptiness and moral rot behind her.

No wonder she's so happy: She has learned the central lesson of Mad Men.

The TV critics might lament the possible end of the life of Peggy's character on the show, but again, that's an industry concern. I certainly hope there's a way for Peggy to remain a central character and presence in seasons six and seven, but remember: The quality of a television show should be measured by the quality of the stories it tells, not whether certain characters get to stick around for a certain length of time. Sunday night's story brought about more than a little pain - it would be a diminished experience for viewers to not see Peggy Olson on AMC in 2013 and 2014 - but if Sunday night's episode and Peggy's internal triumph represent the price one must pay for such anguish, so be it.

So be it, indeed.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

College Basketball Coaches: Reputation Versus Reality

Recruiter, or wizard? Program builder, or late-game maestro? Collector of superior talent, or supreme strategist in evenly-matched games? These are the questions and tension points that apply to big-ticket college football and basketball coaches, and they're the stuff of all-night debates that make sports so contentiously fun. It's worth taking some time to explore what it means to be an elite X-and-O coach, as opposed to "just" a recruiter or program-builder.

Our story begins this past Wednesday night in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

When Tyler Zeller failed to close down the shooting hand of Duke's Austin Rivers on that last-second three-pointer which gave the Blue Devils a win at North Carolina, a respected tweep with a substantially nuanced and granular knowledge of the game of basketball ripped UNC coach Roy Williams for the final, fatal, fateful play. This astute commentator said, quite understandably, that Williams needed to tell Zeller (and his teammates) to shut off the three at all costs. Coaching is partly a craft built on reminding players, and based on Zeller's response to the final six seconds of the Duke-Carolina game, it's fair to wonder if Williams did impress upon his team the importance of denying a Duke three. Williams has established a reputation for being more of a recruiter than a coach in some circles. He is seen by many commentators as a "roll-the-ball-out-on-the-floor" kind of guy, primarily because he insists on winning games with a breakneck pace rather than halfcourt-oriented structure. However, the question is worth asking: If Mike Krzyzewski, and not Williams, had been victimized by that sequence, would there have been the same outcry about deficient coaching? Probably not.

It's very clear that coaches enjoy (or suffer from) reputations that have become entrenched and encrusted over time. These reputations might not be universal or even overwhelmingly unanimous, but the human mind can and does form strong opinions of coaches based on decades of evidence, so let's dive into this subject, including Williams and some other case studies, especially longtime Arizona coach Lute Olson.

Williams and Olson both own national titles, but they also absorbed many really bad - and early - losses in the NCAA Tournament. Williams lost to UTEP on the first weekend in 1992 and to Rhode Island in 1998. He lost as a top seed in the Sweet 16 to Virginia in 1995, made worse by the fact that that game was at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, a kind of second home for the Jayhawks. KU lost as a top seed in the Sweet 16 to Arizona in 1997, with what was probably Roy Boy's most loaded team during his stay in Lawrence. The Elite Eight loss to Syracuse in 1996 was a wound of a different sort, but it still cut deep. Williams then let a big fish get away at North Carolina when his Tar Heels faltered against Georgetown in the 2007 regional finals. Williams has ridden a lot of thoroughbred teams in his career, yet failed to steer those horses into the winner's circle. When these events happen repeatedly, it's possible to make a case that a coach is more successful because of the players he draws into the program, not the plays he draws up on the bench with 30 seconds left in regulation.

A similar verdict can be rendered against Olson, the Arizona coach who lost before the Elite Eight as a top seed in 1989 (versus UNLV) and 2000 (Wisconsin) and was bounced out in the first round as a top-4 seed  in 1992 (East Tennessee State), 1993 (Santa Clara), and 1999 (Oklahoma). Olson looked very helpless on the sidelines in four of those games (in the fifth game, the 1989 West Regional semifinal against UNLV, Arizona's Kenny Lofton drew a charge on Vegas's Anderson Hunt in the final minute, but the officials saw things differently; que sera sera). Moreover, Olson had his shirt handed to him by Utah's Rick Majerus in the 1998 West Regional final, probably the single poorest coaching performance of a decorated career. The 2005 collapse to Illinois in the final 68 seconds of the Chicago Regional final represented the kind of stomach punch that makes it hard for a coach to sleep at night. It's true that Olson, like Williams, fell short on many occasions. It's also quite true that having a national title or even a stack of Final Fours doesn't automatically equate to greatness as an X-and-O coach.

Jim Harrick won a national title, and few would say he was a great X-and-O man.

Dale Brown reached multiple Final Fours, and he was not seen as a wise strategist in his time on the bench for LSU.

As has been mentioned on Twitter this past week, Syracuse has been as far as the Elite Eight only once in the past 15 seasons under Jim Boeheim. That's a pretty interesting case study right there.

Mike Montgomery, Olson's contemporary during the days of the red-hot Stanford-Arizona rivalry in the old Pac-10, made just one Final Four, and he did so because of a Rhode Island (under the aforementioned Mr. Harrick) collapse in the Midwest Regional final.

Gene Keady never made a Final Four. Neither did John Chaney of Temple. Yet, those two men won piles of games and - especially in Chaney's case - were usually coaching against superior teams in the NCAA Tournament (1994 being the exception for Keady when his Purdue team was a top seed).

The bottom line about coaching over the past 25 years in college basketball is that if you're not Mike Krzyzewski, Tom Izzo, or Dean Smith, making the Final Four an average of once every three years over a 10- or 15-year period is really hard to do. College basketball's one-and-done world makes it very hard to run the table. Coach K is a god in this business, the best achiever after Wooden and one of the best practitioners of the craft along with guys like Pete Newell and Bob Knight. (Speaking of Knight, how many times did HE flop in the NCAA Tournament with Indiana?) He has four national titles in over 30 years of coaching. That means he wins roughly once every eight years. That means he fails to win the national title seven out of every eight years he's been at Duke.

It changes the discussion's trajectory, doesn't it?

It's true that making Final Fours and winning a title don't automatically bestow X-and-O greatness on a coach. I can see how and why a commentator would look at Roy Williams or Lute Olson and say, "Hmmmm... he didn't really maximize talent, did he?"

For me, then - just me; others will form their own opinions - what makes Williams and Olson worthy (though not excellent) X-and-O coaches is that they've won as underdogs or as pick-'ems, winning games when the talent on the other side of the court was equal or superior. Williams did this in his 1991 and 1993 tournament runs at Kansas, and he led other Jayhawk teams into the Sweet 16 in 1994 and 2001 before losing hard-fought regional semifinals against No. 1 seeds from the Big Ten (Purdue in '94 and Illinois in '01). Williams then capped his Kansas career with a fantastic tournament performance, beating Coach K and Duke in the Sweet 16, Olson and Arizona in the Elite Eight, and Marquette in the Final Four before losing to Syracuse in the final... only because Nick Collison couldn't hit a foul shot to save his life. Williams has squandered great talent, but he's also made the most of teams that weren't "best in show" from a purely athletic standpoint. That earns him enough credibility on an X-and-O level.

The same pretty much holds true with Olson. In 1980 with Iowa, he beat a higher-seeded Georgetown team to make his first Final Four. In 1994, after the flameouts of '92 and '93, he regathered his troops and made a run to the Final Four. Then came his magnum opus, the felling of three top seeds (Kansas, North Carolina, and Kentucky) en route to his one championship in 1997. Olson's work in 2001 was also particularly special, getting his team to beat top seeds Illinois and Michigan State before losing to a third No. 1 - Duke - in the title game. The Elite Eight loss to Utah in 1998 was brutal - as said above - but the Elite Eight loss to Kansas in 2003 was much more a product of one simple fact: Channing Frye wet the bed in an absolutely abysmal performance. Olson took his blows, but he landed enough blows to be seen as a credible X-and-O coach.

Yes, Rick Majerus and John Chaney made more with what they had, even though they didn't win titles or march to a parade of Final Fours. They are better X-and-O coaches than Roy Williams and Lute Olson. However, does that make Roy and Lute "bad" coaches? Not quite. It's a debate, but a debate that ultimately leads me to defend the records Williams and Olson assembled in their careers.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Handful Of Points, A Truckload Of Angles, And The Noble Loss

What is the enduring truism attached to top-level tennis matches? It is that these boxing matches without the blood come down to a few points, and that the better player will win that handful of points (or that the inferior player will lose them). Yet, as the 2012 Australian Open recedes into history and Novak Djokovic undeniably cements his place in the top echelon of all-time tennis greats - alongside Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer - one can't help but marvel at the larger reality of the three men's careers and how they're more alike than ever before. The growing similarities uniting these three kings of a golden era in men's tennis lead to a discussion that is at once definable and elusive. Winning or losing two points here or one point there does so much to rewrite the history books, and with them, the way whole careers are perceived. Yet, as Rafael Nadal's five-hour, 53-minute loss to Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open final shows, the notion of assigning such weight and glory to the winner while giving bread crumbs to the loser is one of the ways in which modern sporting culture (not just tennis, but encompassing all sports under the sun) falls short.

Yes, many writers have given Nadal's loss the praise it deserves. Brian Phillips of Grantland gives expression to these ideas with more clarity and directness than anyone else has in the aftermath of Sunday's (genuine) epic. When he notes that Nadal's runner-up finish in Melbourne is worth more than a major title won in pedestrian fashion, he sees beyond the closed and contained math that is governed by "that handful of points" and the numbers that flow from them.

Numbers, after all, lie on some occasions. Hence the expression "There are lies, damn lies, and statistics." When numbers don't lie, they still fail to tell the whole story as often as they reflect truth. This is where a comparison of the careers of Nadal, Djokovic and Federer becomes infinitely more fascinating and complex.

What Sunday's Nadal-Djokovic final did was flip some historical scripts in ways that have brought Djokovic into the highest circles of tennis greatness, but which have also made Nadal the co-owner - with Federer - of the kind of loss which endures not for its failures, but for its most gallant and uplifting dimensions. Moreover, Sunday's "loss" (it was frankly a triumph for Nadal in every sense but the scoreboard) neatly underscores the painful and viciously cruel truth of tennis: Two, three, four points - that nasty little handful - carry a weight that would make Atlas take notice.

The Djokovic-Nadal final at Rod Laver Arena has naturally given rise to comparisons with Nadal's win over Federer three years prior in Melbourne. It's plainly obvious that Djokovic's 10 sets of tennis in 10 hours and 43 minutes offered a 2012 equivalent to Nadal's 10 sets in 9 hours and 37 minutes when he beat Fernando Verdasco (semifinals) and Federer (final) to win the 2009 Australian Open. However, the nature of Nadal's loss is worth exploring in greater detail. This match bore a very strong resemblance - not in style of play or the exact order of sets won, but in terms of the larger narrative arc - to the 2008 Wimbledon final, in which Nadal beat Federer in a titanic fifth set that was played on the razor's edge until the very end.

Do recall that the 2008 Wimbledon final - in the middle of the third set - was fully controlled by Nadal. Remember that in the fourth set, Federer was doing all he could to stay in the arena and prolong the battle. In the fourth set, Nadal had the clear advantage, only to surrender it with a nervous mistake. In the fifth set, Federer - though never able to break Nadal (a clear difference from the 2012 Aussie final) - was the first man to sniff victory (with Nadal serving at 4-5, 30-all) before Nadal found a way to turn the tide. In looking at Nadal-Djokovic, one can see how the roles were reversed. Djokovic was the ascendant player in the middle of the third set. Nadal hung on by his fingernails in the fourth. Djokovic owned the flow of the fourth-set tiebreaker but then sprayed a few shocking errors when the finish line beckoned. Nadal had his path to victory at 4-2, 30-15, but then lost it on that one down-the-line miss which gave his opponent the motivational fuel needed for one last finishing kick.

Let's be clear, then: The comparison between Nadal's loss two days ago in Melbourne and Federer's loss to Rafa three and a half years ago at Wimbledon is not just a matter of losing a long, close match in five sets. It's more than that. Nadal fought an uphill battle against an opponent who enjoyed a defined tactical/matchup advantage and the mental comfort zone which comes with it. He persevered to an extent that he had never quite persevered before (he ran out of steam in the fourth set of the 2011 U.S. Open final in what was a remarkably physical fistfight with Djokovic, a match that taxed both men for the remainder of the 2011 tennis season). Yet, he still lost in spite of his massive expenditure of effort. THAT is the key takeaway from the Nadal loss this past Sunday, and from Federer's loss to Rafa in 2008 on the lawns of the All-England Club: They went above and beyond relative to the trajectory of their careers, which had been so regularly transcendent to that point in time, accessing new wells of competitive determination and passion... and still not gaining the victor's crown on that handful of points.

Perhaps the tennis world appreciates this point already, but I'm not sure it does: You can reach higher, dig deeper, and find more fire inside your heart than you ever knew you had; you can pour out your soul in ways you never thought you could... and still come up short. There's no way to measure that with "Federer leads Nadal, 16 major titles to 10, or Nadal leads Djokovic 10 majors to 5." Numbers are at once the defining measure of historical greatness - the man who has closed the sale 16 times at majors is supposed to be seen in a better light than anyone else; why shouldn't it be so? - and yet a substantially empty way of measuring the entirety of men and the careers they forge. Seeing Djokovic - who entered Sunday's match with six fewer majors than Nadal - eclipse his rival three days after Nadal beat Federer (who has six more majors than the Spaniard) shows that there are limits to the notion of measuring greatness only in terms of wins. It is in many ways the losses that magnify greatness on an all-time scale, and there are ways of doing this for Nadal, Federer and Djokovic as their careers can be seen in a fuller light.

Nadal's losses to Djokovic - especially at the 2011 U.S. Open and even more so in Melbourne this past weekend - were the textbook embodiment of "noble losses," defeats that enhance a reputation more than diminish it. Nadal has conquered the five-set crucible on several occasions - beating John Isner in the first round of the 2011 French Open; stopping Robin Haase and Philip Petzschner in five-setters during his 2010 Wimbledon title run; eclipsing Federer in memorable encounters, of course; and fighting off Robin Soderling in that infamously contentious match from the first week of the 2007 Wimbledon championship - but even when Nadal loses, he loses not with timidity, but a mighty show of resistance.

Djokovic - 14 months ago, in December of 2010 - was sitting on just one major title, but it's worth remembering that the Serbian superstar came so close to making main-event matches his own. He held five set points in the opening stanza of the 2007 U.S. Open final against Federer before losing in a tiebreak. He held two points in the second set of that same match, but simply couldn't finish. He engaged Nadal in a couple of French Open semifinals and competed on very even terms in the opening sets, failing only on those occasions when he really needed to deliver the goods. He didn't lose five-set epics in 2007, 2008 and 2009, but he lost so many 7-5 and 7-6 sets that, if different, would have added to his trophy case to the point that he, and not Nadal, would be in prime position to overtake Federer's 16 majors. The fact that Djokovic is now regularly able to win matches 7-5 in the fifth set (2010 U.S. Open semifinals against Federer; 2011 U.S. Open semifinals against Federer; 2012 Australian Open semifinals against Murray; 2012 Australian Open final against Nadal; he also won that first-set tiebreak against Federer in the 2011 Aussie semifinals, the tiebreak that set the tone for his dominant run from January through mid-September, the greatest eight-month stretch in tennis history after Laver's two calendar Grand Slams in 1962 and '69) shows how much those 7-6, 7-5, 7-6 losses to Federer taught him. Lesser men - men with names such as Tomas Berdych or David Nalbandian - would allow close losses to hijack their careers. Novak Djokovic used his close losses to transform himself into a man who is now likely to win at least 10 majors, and quite possibly a few more.

And then there's this Federer guy. Much as I find that Nadal's lack of a major title at the 2012 Australian Open is simply not an accurate reflection of his performance or worth, so it also is that the 16 major titles don't measure Federer in full as well. Nadal's ability to play so well on hardcourts, his worst surface, makes Rafa a more impressive figure than Federer, whose stature would REALLY be enhanced if he could lose to Nadal on clay (in Paris) the way Rafa lost to Djokovic on Australian plexicushion. Relative to their respective talents, Nadal has made more of his career than Federer has. Mind you, that should not be seen as a way of minimizing what Federer has done, but of magnifying what Nadal has done. Federer's gifts have always been so blindingly evident that the challenge for Roger was always about getting out of his own way and simply allowing that talent to flourish. Nadal, though, has had to push himself to find new ways of winning, new areas of improvement that could add to his tried-and-true formula of defensive retrieving backed by that point-resetting topspin forehand. Because Nadal has played his career uphill - even when standing on top of the hill - he has done something Federer hasn't. Roger won't attain the one remaining transformative moment of his career until he beats Nadal at the French; without that, there will be - in a narrow (not total) sense - a career arc in which Nadal will have left less on the table than Federer has. It is counterintuitive, but it's true.

In the wake of Nadal's heroic loss to Djokovic in Australia - which magnifies how Djokovic has himself undergone a transformation from "close loser" to "regular survivor" in big-stage matches - the aspect of Federer's career that becomes so much more impressive to me is how many times he has come so close to winning. The 16 majors are fabulous, but at a time when the brave, extended "noble loss" in tennis is being given fresh attention, it's worth pointing out that - but for that handful of points he has won more often than lost - Federer would be sitting at 20 majors right now.

He had match point against Marat Safin in the 2005 Australian Open semifinals, and lost two more major semifinals in which he had match points (against Djokovic in New York in both 2010 and 2011).

He was two points away against Rafa at Wimbledon in 2008. He was two points away from a two-set lead and almost-certain victory against Juan Martin del Potro in the 2009 U.S. Open final. In the 2006 French Open final, he lost a fourth-set tiebreak to Nadal. In 2011, he lost a set point in the opening stanza and dropped a second-set tiebreak. In Australia this past Thursday, he lost a third-set tiebreak, 7-5.

The man acclaimed as the best golfer of all time is not Federer's buddy, Tiger Woods, but Jack Nicklaus. Sure, Nicklaus owns 18 major titles, four more than Tiger's 14, but what people forget about the Golden Bear is that he finished second or third in 19 other major tournaments. No man has come remotely close to competing for championships in 37 major tournaments in golf, winning a fair share while also coming really close on so many other occasions. In tennis, Jimmy Connors owns 31 semifinal appearances at the majors and Ivan Lendl reached 19 major finals. Federer's 16 majors are double Connors's and Lendl's eight championships, but Federer's consistency - in addition to the major-tournament trophies - truly elevate him above Jimbo and Ivan and 99 percent of other tennis greats. It's Federer's close losses - just as much as the wins - which magnify what he has achieved. It is similar for Nadal right now, and tennis will - in four years or so - recognize the same thing in Djokovic.

Yes, winning is the focus of our sporting culture and the comparisons that inevitably flow from it. However, after the 2012 Australian Open final, there should be greater appreciation than ever for the noble loss and how it magnifies the career of the man who "loses" only in that most narrow, numerical sense. Rafael Nadal's career just looks better and better in comparison to Roger Federer's after his "loss," and what keeps Fed ahead of Nadal by the slightest of margins is - ironically - the number of times he has reached a major final - especially in Paris - only to not win, either.

The handful of points that decide tennis matches at the highest level have value even when they're NOT won... as long as "not winning them" does not remain a permanent and prominent feature of a career. Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have all lost that handful of points on plenty of occasions. It is that dimension of their careers which makes their periods of ascendance - Federer in the past, Nadal in an unexpected fashion, and Djokovic in his glorious moment of unquestioned triumph - so real and utterly magnificent.