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For 25 New MacArthur Recipients, Some Security and Time to
By JANNY SCOTT
<<...>> Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times
Ben Katchor, a cartoonist at his home in Manhattan, is a recipient
of a $500,000 MacArthur fellowship.
he call came as Lucia Perillo was dismantling her life --
giving up her job teaching writing at Southern Illinois University and
joining her husband in Olympia, Wash., because she has multiple sclerosis
and cannot commute cross-country anymore. She was preparing to clean the
bathroom in the empty cinder block house she was selling in Carbondale,
Ill., when the MacArthur Foundation telephoned last week to say that it was
giving her $500,000.
The conversation was brief and mysterious. Then, while Ms.
Perillo waited for her husband, James Rudy, the thought occurred to her:
maybe she would give the money away. She and Mr. Rudy needed money, but they
had friends who needed it more.
"I had heard of the MacArthur fellowship," said Ms. Perillo,
a poet who the foundation announced last night was one of 25 new recipients
of a MacArthur fellowship for extraordinary creativity and promise.
"But I think I'm stupid, so I don't think of myself as
MacArthur material," she added. "I have that -- what do you call it? -- that
imposter syndrome. I always feel that my life is something that I've
stumbled into and am undeserving of."
All sorts of startling things go through the heads of the
poets, paleontologists, physicists, cartoonists and others who win the
MacArthur, the academic and artistic equivalent of a mini-Nobel Prize and
the jackpot rolled in one. And that happened late last week when the
foundation began secretively calling the latest recipients of its five-year,
no-strings-attached fellowships. Their names were made public last night.
Susan Alcock, an archaeologist at the University of
Michigan, could not remember her age when the MacArthur people asked: "I
could remember I was as old as Jack Benny used to say he was, but I couldn't
remember what that was."
David Isay, a 34-year-old independent producer of radio
documentaries, insisted in an interview: "I'm actually not a genius. I'm
just surrounded by these incredibly brilliant people and I try to help
Samuel Mockbee, 55, an architect and professor at Auburn
University who with his students builds what the foundation called
"surprising, functional and beautiful structures" in one of Alabama's
poorest counties, went out and threw fastballs with his 14-year-old son.
Ben Katchor, a Manhattan cartoonist in whose syndicated
comic strips the foundation found what it called an ironic, compelling and
bittersweet nostalgia for the detritus of city life, said last Wednesday
that he was feeling no need to celebrate.
"I'm very happy every night," Mr. Katchor said. "I mean, I'm
doing what I want to do."
One of the odd aspects of their good fortune is that the
foundation swore them to secrecy until 11:30 p.m. yesterday, so reporters
could interview them before their names were made public. They could tell
only their spouses or an intimate friend. So some found themselves giggling
at the hairdresser's or sobbing in meetings, required to explain only with,
"No, no, I'm O.K."
"I don't know if I should tell you that I broke the rule,
but I couldn't quite keep it in the bag," confessed Carl Safina of Islip,
N.Y., a vice president of the National Audubon Society who was tracked down
at a dinner party off Vancouver, British Columbia. He was awfully quiet,
someone remarked after he returned to the table. So Mr. Safina swore them to
silence, and then told them.
Susan Marshall, a choreographer, said: "In one sense it
feels like I just want to reflect on my work, like I have mental breathing
room that I don't normally have the luxury of. Then it's this other feeling,
as though someone has just thrown down the gauntlet. And it's a great
feeling. It's just lovely that something is expected of you."
The fellowships are given each year to people who show
exceptional merit and the promise of continued creative work. The money
comes without conditions, intended simply as "seed money or venture capital
for intellectual, social and artistic endeavors," the foundation says, to
eliminate constraints on the recipients' productivity or creativity.
The foundation raised the stipend this year to a flat
$500,000 for everyone; it used to range from $200,000 to $375,000, depending
on the recipient's age.
The latest group -- 12 women and 13 men ages 28 to 55 --
includes, among others, K. Christopher Beard, a paleontologist at the
Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh; Deborah Willis, a
historian of photography at the Smithsonian Institution who works on the
history of African-American photography; Anne Carson, a poet and essayist
and professor of classics at McGill University in Montreal, and Peter Hayes,
executive director of the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable
Development in Berkeley, Calif.
Also in the group are Cecilia Munoz, a leader in immigration
and civil rights policy; Daniel Schrag, a Harvard geochemist who works on
climate change and the relationship between science and policy; Matthew
Rabin, a behavioral economist at the University of California; Patricia J.
Williams, a Columbia University law professor and commentator on race in
America, and Laura Otis, a professor of English at Hofstra University whose
work crosses the boundaries of comparative literature, the history of
science and social history.
Few of them knew how they would spend the money. Many said
it would buy them time to think. Others said it would bring some
long-elusive security to their organization or to their colleagues or even
As for Dr. Alcock, she eventually remembered. She is 39. "It
took a little legwork," she said. "I asked my husband, 'How old am I?' "
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