A fellowship of geniuses, minus one

FESCHUK: $500,000 award aside, the MacArthur Fellowship’s super-smart label would come in handy at parties

A fellowship of geniuses, minus one

Getty Images; Photo Illustration by Taylor Shute

Each fall a U.S. foundation bestows “genius grants” of a half-million bucks on a bunch of academics, artists and other accomplished individuals. But what’s puzzling about the 2011 crop of “geniuses” is that the prestigious field is completely devoid of me.

Frankly this comes as a shock. Why, just last week at the symphony a woman came up to me and said: “Do up your fly, genius.” It seemed the people were on board with my candidacy.

The so-called “genius awards” are presented by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, a charity that features its benefactors’ middle initials—the monocle of name accessories—and therefore must have scads of cash. They are not to be confused with the “super genius awards” presented by the Wile E. Coyote Foundation.

Winning a “genius grant”—known formally, but less impressively, as a MacArthur Fellowship—is great because it entitles you to five annual payments of $100,000 with no strings attached. That’s right, there is no obligation to do anything useful with the genius money. This makes my snub all the more painful since not doing anything useful with money is what I’m a genius at, he typed while watching three Roomba vacuums in a demolition derby on his office floor.

But the bigger appeal is that you get to refer to yourself as a genius, which would surely come in handy at parties and when my wife finds me scooping out peanut butter with my index finger.

Wife: What on Earth are you—

Me: Remember—genius!

Wife: Khhhtt! [sound of being outsmarted again]

Being formally declared a genius would also ensure that my many character flaws be perceived as charming eccentricities rather than the basis for a restraining order. After all, Hollywood has taught us that geniuses are at all times to be revered, even if they suffer from horrible afflictions such as “schizophrenia” or “being played by Russell Crowe.”

Upon reading the 2011 list of winners, my first thought was that my candidacy might have been rejected on a technicality. For example, it is forbidden for individuals to promote their candidacy. But what if the chosen form of self-promotion (skywriting) is itself a manifestation of the artistic expression and creativity the selection committee claims to value? And what if the skywriting was in red, which is awesome, and there wasn’t all that much swearing?

The foundation people claim that “emphasis is placed on nominees for whom our support would relieve limitations that inhibit them from pursuing their most innovative ideas.” But I ask you: what idea could face more limitations than my proposed puppy vending machines?

All that should matter is that the committee has four main criteria for genius picking—and I fit them all:

The ability to transcend traditional boundaries. I pretty much invented the concept of overstaying one’s welcome at dinner parties.

A willingness to take risks. I have a large mortgage yet write for a dying medium.

Persistence in the face of personal obstacles. Have you seen my hair?

Capacity to synthesize disparate ideas and approaches. I don’t know what this means but I am a genius at changing the subject. Look everyone, fat pandas!

I don’t want to be critical, but it’s hard to see what the judges were thinking this year. The picks don’t feel that geniusy. For instance, one of the recipients is a former poet laureate of the United States. I assume she was chosen because in these troubled times what the world truly needs is a better rhyme for Nantucket.

There’s a cellist in there, too, and hey, look, a silversmith—so humanity is good for flatware, which is nice. And then there’s Sarah Otto, a theoretical biologist at UBC, whose work includes analyzing the benefits of sexual and asexual reproduction. We watch porn, too, Sarah. We don’t claim it makes any of us a genius.

Not that I’m bitter, but maybe it’s worth considering that over 30 years some 850 so-called geniuses have been given money to improve the world. Yet the economy stinks, the environment is in peril and I can’t even sate my mid-life crisis by buying a hovercar. Thanks for nothing, geniuses.

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