Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Brains in a box, originally uploaded by abanesta.

I grew up in an old mill town that crackled with its own kind of energy. Toughness was considered the supreme virtue.

I didn’t have it.

When a girl named Pam challenged me to a fight over a boy in eighth grade, I hid in my room for days. She celebrated her default victory by cracking jokes about my lankiness for the amusement of the disappointed crowd.

“I probably couldn’t have reached her chin anyway,” Pam quipped. (She wasn’t only tough; she was a budding stand-up comedian.)

Ouch. At the time I was 5 foot 4 1/2 and suicidally self-conscious about the way I towered over some of the god-like “cute” boys in my class. If I’d known I had four more inches left to grow, I probably would have never come out of that room.

But then in eighth grade, suicidal self-consciousness is pretty much a way of life. At least, it was for me. Another thing I was self-conscious about was the “advanced” class where I’d been placed in school. Talk about social disgrace!

In fact, I was so dismayed that I went to my guidance counselor and begged him to get me out of it. For one thing, I was convinced it was a mistake; I clearly didn’t belong there. I still think I didn't.

All my friends were in the business class; and I, like them, had no intention of going to college.

College was for nerds.
For geeks.
For brainiacs.

And I was a tough girl. Honest I was.

The guidance counselor, Mr. McGowan, clucked and nodded sympathetically--then left me where I was. It took me a year to forgive him; decades later, I still haven’t run out of gratitude.

Unfortunately, things haven’t changed too much since I was in eighth grade. In far too many communities, kids are still embarrassed to be called smart. If I really was the brainiac my middle-school peers accused me of being, I’d figure out a way to change that.

But every now and then the smart people of the world win one. The day they give out the MacArthur genius grants is one of them.This years’ fellows range in age from thirty-one to sixty-four. A few are well-known; most aren’t. Their areas of expertise are diverse and fascinating. I get excited just reading about them and contemplating all the great contributions they're making.

What I like about this award is that it’s absolutely unconditional.

--You don’t have to be young.

--You don’t have to look good on the cover of People magazine.

--You don’t have to know anyone. (At least, it appears the foundation has done everything possible to factor this out.)

--You can do anything you want with the money.

--And damn, you don’t even have to be tough.

A half-million bucks just for being smart! What a deal.

AND for writers:

J.A. KONRATH writes about time and how we use it...

And SARA GRAN takes on her critics and teaches us all a lesson in non-attachment...


Anonymous said...

Another thing I've noticed about the MacArthur grants is that you don't even have to be intellectually smart, per se. It seems to me, at least when they give grants to artists, that they've really sought out people who are doing unique things within their media, seeing and speaking to other people in voices and languages no one else is using, maybe even about topics other people never even try to get close to. No matter what kind of recipient they choose, though -- artists, scientists, businessfolk, whomever -- it also seems that they go out of their way to find people who are really doing something not just to please themselves but to really improve the world, one way or another. I haven't seen where all the awards have ever gone, but these are patterns I've noticed among those I have found out about.

Penny at Disability Studies, Temple U., talks about a few of these here.

See what I mean? And I just love the idea of giving someone really creative half a million dollars to do whatever s/he wants, knowing fully well that this person will probably just put it right back out into the world in some form or other.

Patry Francis said...

I was struck by the same thing, Sara--by what a positive force these people are in the world. Isn't that the ultimate form of genius?

Lorna said...

just for being smart? sweet!

Anonymous said...

Wow! I like the list of "qualifications". We need more of these kind of awards, like in Canada.

Anonymous said...

Though being smart and doing the right thing may have its own intangible rewards, it's certainly nice to see these dedicated people reap some tangible benefits as well.

Bernita said...

She got that many reviews and she's complaining?

Alex S said...

Why have I never heard of this grant before? What a wonderful opportunity it sounds like, not that I'd win. I'm teased about my lack of apparently everyday gaps in my knowledge cap. For example, until last year or the year before, I didn't know who the Loch Ness monster was. I'm still hassled about it by a couple friends!

The Curmudgeon said...

I used to be called a brainiac, too -- unfortunately for me, I grew out of it.

You're very generous in your attitude toward the MacArthur genius grantees.

But there's a part of me that's so, so jealous: It's an even better fantasy than winning the Lotto. To win Lotto you need blind, dumb luck. Like the Lotto, the MacArthur award takes care of your financial worries -- but, even more, you are publicly held up as a "genius." *sigh*

Patry Francis said...

lorna: Isn't it?

marja-leena: My only quibble--what, no bloggers? However, I wouldn't be surprised if one or two didn't show up on the list next time. I can think of a few on my own sidebar who qualify, both in making a contribution, and displaying their own brand of genius.

tinker: Definitely--and hopefully, the money will help them bring some of their ideas to fruition. However, I love the fact that nothing is required.

bernita: I suppose it's true that even a bad review, or one that misunderstands both the work and the writer still "gets the word out."

The worst review I ever read was Michiko Kakutani's take on Jonathan Franzen's latest. Talk about an evisceration! But it probably only added to his sales...

r: Thanks, dear.

alexandra: I suspect that those "knowledge gaps" are common in anyone who focuses intently on their field of interest; and I'd be willing to bet that most of the MacArthur fellows would admit to the same thing.

Patry Francis said...

curmudgeon: I agree it's the ultimate fantasy. A nice half million, which is a manageable sum, not some of the crazy numbers that the lotto awards--and recognition for your brilliance all at once.

Anonymous said...

been trying to comment here. what's wrong with blogger?

paris parfait said...

I admire the MacArthur grants too - seem to be much more democratic in their distribution, without regard to age, creed, profession, etc.

Patry Francis said...

Paris: Yes! That's one of the aspects I most admire, AND they those George Saunders--one of my favorite short story writers.

Anonymous said...

There is nothing easy about being in the eighth grade.

The MacArthur Grants sound wonderful.

Patry Francis said...

coll: That's one great thing about getting older: you never have to go back to eighth grade. At least, I hope not.

gerry rosser said...

I used to ride the school bus in a rural area. The kids with little above the eyebrows loved derisively calling me "Einstein." I don't know where they ended up, but I've enjoyed life of study, reading, and learning, and don't need a financial award to improve on that--not that somebody isn't welcome to forward a large grant!
Enjoy your weblog.

Patry Francis said...

gerry: I'll nominate you if you nominate me. Deal?