prizes . . .

by mulberryshoots

Okay, so the MacArthur Fellows were named yesterday.

These are the so-called “genius” awards consisting of about half of a million dollars to each of the people whose exceptional endeavors are singled out by the MacArthur Foundation. One of them this year is a stringed instrument bow maker in Boston. Another is an economist who surveyed about a million sources of data to come up with conclusions about how we learn. Chris Thile, a mandolin player whose recordings and Youtube clips attest to an amazing ability ignored phone calls from MacArthur, thinking they were political robocalls.

When my kids were growing up in Lexington, we knew a family with the same surname as ours who lived up the hill from us. Tragically, the mother died from a blood clot after routine knee surgery. The father, who taught at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) raised the three girls by himself and my daughters were friendly with them as classmates in school. Years later, I happened to hear that one of them had gone on to MIT herself and formed a group of her peers to invent and develop very simple devices that would help people in third world countries. Her invention was a handheld water purifier that worked manually by cranking it. Amy Smith was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2004.

I don’t know about you, but I look forward to hearing about these awards every year. It comes after the Nobel prizes are announced earlier in the Fall. And they come after the Pulitzer and Booker Prizes, I think. In a way, it’s great to hear about these acknowledgements of human creativity and exceptional talent.

Sometimes I wonder, though, how other superhuman efforts are acknowledged in our culture. Like the parents who live across the street from me whose eldest son has cystic fibrosis, living in a wheelchair, picked up everyday by the public school bus. Or parents who have kids who are autistic or disabled in other ways that entails a lifetime of care and concerns about their welfare when they reach adulthood. One of my mentors when I worked at Genetics Institute had a son like that. The loving care he and his wife provided for their child extended beyond themselves to efforts putting through legislative initiatives in the public sector to help others with the same plight.

When I think about acknowledging meaning in one’s life, it comes in many different forms on so many different levels. The MacArthur celebrants are on one extreme of the spectrum. On a daily basis, there must be zillions more along the way.