Friday, September 28, 2007

Me vs. the Spider Silk Biologist

When some people want to feel inadequate, they look at Forbes’ list of the wealthiest individuals and beat themselves up for not being obscenely rich. Whenever I’m feeling low but not quite low enough, I think about MacArthur Fellows, or Geniuses as they’re more commonly known. And beat myself up for not being spectacular.

The latest crop of MacArthur recipients was announced earlier this week and, big surprise, once again I did not get the call. Apparently I have not demonstrated the requisite “extraordinary originality and dedication” in my creative pursuits nor a “marked capacity for self-direction.” (It’s true, when I travel, I usually need a map.) I heard the MacArthur folks loud and clear: Do not pass Go, do not collect the $500,000 stipend (spread over five years, which takes a little bloom off that rose).

There are those who might scroll through the bios of the two dozen winners and remark, “What an amazing group of people.” Pollyannas. Me, I looked to see who’s younger, just to sink a little lower in my own estimation.

I came across two Geniuses who are my exact age. My new arch nemeses: Jay Rubenstein, medieval historian; Cheryl Hayashi, spider silk biologist. What the hell is that? you ask. It seems Hayashi is studying ways to integrate the “understanding of spider phylogenetics and the development of such biomimetic materials as biodegradable fishing lines, sutures, and protective armor cloth.” I take that to mean she’s working on turning spider webs into Spidey suits.

I picture Hayashi as a 10-year-old, waking up in the morning and declaring, “I’m going to go to Yale and become a famous scientist.” I picture myself as a 10-year-old, waking up in the morning and declaring, “We’re out of Cap’n Crunch.” I picture Hayashi today, smartly dressed in her white lab coat, gazing intently through her microscope, scribbling furiously in her notebook, working tirelessly around the clock for a breakthrough so that tangled knots of non-biodegradable fishing lines no longer choke our waterways. She does not know who Britney Spears is. I like to think that she leaves her fluorescently-lit lab only to attend international conferences, but she probably throws amazing dinner parties and is an accomplished rock climber. She is respected, admired and envied by friends and colleagues alike, who mutter behind her back, “It’s not like she won the Nobel Prize.”

I picture myself today, reading recaps of television shows that I’ve already watched.

I remember tuning into the Olympics when I was in my teens. I think it was the summer games, held in L.A., when Russia boycotted and U.S. athletes greedily took pretty much every medal, competing against perennial non-powerhouses like Lichtenstein. One of the adults in my family—either my dad or my Aunt Mary Jo, but I don’t want to point fingers—said to me, “Look at these girls and how much they’ve accomplished at your age.”

I have hated prodigies and over-achievers ever since.

When I was younger, I don’t know that I had any expectation of what my life would be. There was no grand plan, other than making it through high school and college. What came next was completely vague, aside from the fact that it most certainly did not involve phylogenetics or biomimetics. Now that I’m older, I still don’t have a specific notion of what my life should be, only that it’s not. What it should be. I wonder if Hayashi looks at fellow Fellows like Corey Harris, a blues musician, or Ruth DeFries, environmental geographer, and thinks the same thing.

Realistically, I know we can’t all be geniuses just like we can’t all be billionaires. Not every composer is Mozart, not every artist is Picasso, not every investor is Warren Buffet. The vast majority of humans are average—original and unique in our own way, to be sure, but average nonetheless. I don’t know why, but that bothers me. I want to be gifted.

If there is one positive to be found in this whole MacArthur business, it is in the personage of Joan Snyder. The painter, an honoree this year, was born in 1940. It either took her awhile to blossom into a genius or it took the MacArthur Foundation awhile to recognize her talents. So I still have hope. MacArthur Class of 2034, save a spot for me.


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