One man's luck: A genius grant, but so much more

By: AP
By: AP

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- On Tuesday, the new list of MacArthur "genius award" winners will be announced. If you're on it, here's what to expect:

Most likely, you didn't know you were being considered. Winners are often plucked from obscurity, and nominations are secret.

You've been told to wait for a phone call from an acquaintance, but it's a set-up. When you answer, a serious-sounding stranger will ask if you're alone, and if you've heard of the MacArthur Foundation and its famous fellowship.

You have, of course.

The foundation disavows the term, but everyone else knows the MacArthur as the "genius award." Winning it means never having to prove yourself again - plus $500,000, no strings attached.

Once a year for five years, $100,000 will be deposited in your bank account. Nobody will check up on you. The idea is to give very smart people five years to focus on their work, without having to worry about money. Spend it as you think best. If buying a Porsche helps you focus, go for it.

Later comes the public announcement, and the flood of congratulatory e-mails, the full-page newspaper ads from your employer, the phone calls from reporters.

Inevitably, from your snarky friends, there will be a string of genius jokes every time you trip or can't work the DVD player.

And what then, in the year before the next class is announced? You may move from ecstasy to quiet satisfaction. The attachment of the term "genius" to a MacArthur fellowship tends to highlight the peak moments of accomplishment - the violin concerto, the novel, the discovery in the lab. Only you will understand how much hard work preceded those moments, how many obstacles and doubts were overcome. The lasting reward may be simply the assurance it was all worthwhile.

If you're fortunate, some things - the right things - will change in your life.

And if you're really, really lucky, like Jay Rubenstein, perhaps one year after you win your MacArthur genius award you will be able to look back and say this: It wasn't even the best thing that happened that week.

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Rubenstein - medieval historian, sardonic wit, amateur country-western musician, aficionado of science fiction and barbecue - sits in a Knoxville pub and recounts how he first got excited about the monks who made him a genius.

The story starts in the 11th-century France. A Benedictine named Guibert of Nogent was struggling to make his way in the world and build a career in the church. In his own time, he never hit it big. But he was a deep thinker, a prickly observer and, courtesy of his mother, possessor of a ferocious Oedipus complex.

All of this made for a fantastic autobiography. Or so it seemed to Rubenstein, 900 years later, reading it as an undergraduate at Carleton College in Minnesota.

Monks were not a predictable intellectual passion. They hadn't gotten much attention at school in Cushing, Okla., where his father, now retired, ran a scrapyard and his mother is still the resident firebrand liberal.

But there was something surprisingly human about monks. They were not nearly as pious and deferential as their caricature would suggest.

Jay's studies took him to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and then to the University of California-Berkeley for a Ph.D. With monklike discipline, he finished his degree in six years.

But the road got rougher. He shuffled around in one-year teaching appointments - the fast-food jobs of academia.

"He was discouraged but determined," said Gary Barth, a close friend. "It was frustrating for all of us to watch from the sidelines. Here is this clearly exceptional person, intellectually and in the classroom, going through this awful meat-grinder."

As a penny-pinching graduate student, he was living in San Francisco during the dot-com boom. Everybody around him seemed wildly successful. People his age were retiring.

He had been 22 when he won the Rhodes, and they'd named a street for him in Cushing. He was embarrassed: "There was a point when I was 30 when I thought, 'I bet they wish they could take THAT back.'"

At one point, he went to a career-placement testing company and filled out pages and pages of questions, hoping the computer would suggest a rewarding but attainable career.

It spat out the career he was best-suited for: historian.

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I first met Jay in 1991. He was at Oxford and had his first teaching job, at a summer program full of intellectually curious but smart-aleck American teenagers. I was in his first class.

Even as a rookie, he was a great teacher - patient, with a Monty Python-esque gift for the clever anachronism that makes everyone giggle but also nails the point. After class, he led tours of churches and castles, and his enthusiasm was contagious. He made me want to be a teacher, too.

We kept in touch, and when I next saw him it was 1998. This time I was in graduate school at Oxford, and he had recently finished at Berkeley. I was trying to decide whether to try to become a history professor myself.

He tried to give a balanced picture, but his description of the road ahead was depressing. I knew Jay was much smarter than me and more passionate about his subject.

I started looking around for a job in journalism.

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Like Rubenstein, Guibert stuck with history. For years, he agonized over his struggles to earn promotion and respectability. Finally, he landed a position, but at a small, out-of-the-way monastery.

And after his years in the academic wilderness, Jay finally got a tenure-track job - at the University of New Mexico.

If not the most prestigious history department, it was a chance to settle down and enjoy his beloved Southwestern cuisine and a decent music scene. Every week, he took his graduate students out dancing to the tunes of Vanilla Pop, a cover band.

He expanded his dissertation into a 2002 book, "Guibert of Nogent: Portrait of a Medieval Mind." It was no best-seller but boosted his profile. Young scholars typically play it safe, but Jay took on big topics and drew bold conclusions. And unlike an ever-increasing proportion of academics, he wrote beautifully.

Gradually, papers and fellowships accumulated, and his star rose.

In 2006, the University of Tennessee recruited him with a generous offer: It would pay him to go to Europe for two years, to research the Crusades, before returning to Knoxville.

"It was finally like, 'I don't have to feel ashamed," he said. "The job search seemed like such a hazing ritual. I think, it was, 'now I can settle down and disappear into obscurity. A year in Rome, a year in Paris, then I can settle down in Knoxville and teach."

A novelist friend of Jay's once told him: "Good things only ever happened to me when I didn't need them anymore."

The MacArthur award came when he was 40 and finally settled as a professional historian and living in Paris.

But to him and to the friends who had watched him struggle, it was deeply satisfying.

When the call came, he proved his worthiness of a "genius" award by cracking a joke after learning he'd won a half-million dollars:

"How long do I have to think about it?"

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Picturing Jay in his early 30s, one can't help but imagine him in a monk's frock himself - scribbling away over books in the modern-day monastery that is the university, scrapping for cash, never married.

"When we were first going out he was like, 'I've been living alone for 15 years, I don't know if I can have a girlfriend,'" Meredith McGroarty says now.

She e-mailed him two days after the MacArthur announcement, but she didn't know about it.

"Hi Professor Rubenstein - you probably don't remember me, but I was in one of your medieval history classes at Dickinson about 10 years ago," she wrote. She told him she still read medieval history during her subway commute, and had noticed his book when it popped up as a suggestion on her Amazon.com account.

Once she could afford it, she promised to read it.

"I can't tell you my intentions were entirely platonic," she said. "I had a crush on him."

In his response, he refrained from deploying the all-time great pickup line at his disposal - he made no mention of the genius award.

Months later, when he came to New York for a conference, they met up for pizza and stayed out talking until 1 a.m. Afterward, he picked up a Village Voice, looking for some musical event that would offer a plausible excuse to meet again. Country guitarist Junior Brown was playing at Joe's Pub in the East Village.

"I didn't think he went out with mere mortals," she recalls.

"Yeah, I slum it occasionally," he says.

Later, she visited him in Paris. They hit the predictable spots for a pair of infatuated medievalists - the Museum of the Middle Ages and Notre Dame cathedral.

"We'd take walks in the park and he'd tell me about the Merovingians," she says.

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And what would Guibert, Rubenstein's intellectual companion for so many years and across so many centuries, have said about the MacArthur windfall? Jay finds it easy to imagine.

"You've been put in a very dangerous situation," Guibert would say. "Exercise extreme caution. If possible, give it all away."

Not to worry. While most of us would have partied across Paris in a champagne-fueled celebration, on the night Jay won he called his parents and grabbed a burger at a diner.

He keeps talking about buying a Fender Stratocaster guitar, but hasn't yet. On his blog, he holds out the possibility of using the money to become a "country-western hillbilly crooner." But really he plans to use it to write more books. His next one is on the Crusades (another MacArthur perk: publishers call YOU).

Jay admires monks for their pursuit of knowledge and self-understanding. But his outlook is different. The world doesn't have to be a terrible place, to be shunned for the university/monastery. You can have a delightful, adoring girlfriend and still write a good book. You can enjoy a well-deserved prize, guilt-free.

I visited Jay in Knoxville last month; I hadn't seen him for a decade. He expressed some regret at helping dissuade me from academia. I told him not to give it another thought. People find their way to what they're meant to do.

When you win a MacArthur award, you don't have to do things like teach introductory western civ anymore. But there he was, cracking instructive jokes to 250 undergraduates about how much tougher the Myceneans were than the Minoans.

"It's 4,000 years in 14 weeks," he tells students. "If you skip two classes, that's like skipping America."

Jay could land work at some of the most prestigious institutions in the country. These days, top private universities are raiding faculty from public ones, which can't compete financially.

But he's happy here. Meredith likes Knoxville. She visited for a couple weeks in August and hopes to return soon. Tennessee has a good library, and showed faith in him before he was a certified genius. He sees no reason to leave.

"I have good colleagues, barbecue, country music, and a babe to boot," he says.

"What else does a guy need?"

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On the Net:

Jay Rubenstein's faculty page: http://web.utk.edu/history/faculty/f-rubenstein.htm

Jay Rubenstein's blog: http://www.euromad.net

The MacArthur Fellowships: http://www.macfound.org/site/c.lkLXJ8MQKrH/b.959463/

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