Give Me a Guggenheim for La Dolce Vita

A few weeks ago, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation announced the winners of this year’s fellowships for artists, scholars and scientists. I took part in this ritual, as I usually do, by checking the small print listing in the Sunday paper the way many people check the obituary page – first, to see if my name was there, and next, to see if any of my friends’ names were there.

May 3, 1986, Page 27 The New York Times Archives

I missed out again, most likely because I didn’t apply, but 272 others, including a few people I know, shared in the nearly $6 million bounty. Among the projects the Guggenheim Foundation will help them pursue are a study of epic poetry and the political ideology of imperialism, theoretical studies in condensed matter physics and the evolving treatment of black characters and themes in the Brazilian cinema. Some grants are for more general purposes: painting, sculpture, film-making.

Now I don’t want this to sound like sour grapes, but I had to wonder just how much these recipients need a Guggenheim to stimulate their creativity or research. They already sound like a bunch of over-achievers to me. Chances are most of them spend 18 hours a day in front of a canvas, or hunched over microscopes, and their dinner party talk is already filled with deadly monologues on the ”Iliad” or the organization of lexical memory. I know no one needs to give me a grant to work for civil liberties, which is what I do anyway. What I could use is a grant to give me time to mow the lawn.

Therein lies the germ of an idea whose time, I think, has come – an idea worthy of the attention of rich young people looking for a way to ease their guilt over how grandfather made the family fortune. The idea is to make a few bucks available for balance in life. There are plenty of foundations that send scholars to the library stacks, and painters to rustic retreats, thereby making sure that brilliant and creative people further alienate their spouses. But what the grant-getters may really need is some incentive for leisure.

Of course, these new grants would have to be the kind you can’t nominate yourself for – and not just to ward off the drifters and dreamers. The whole point is that workaholics tend to be unaware of life’s little pleasures until it’s too late. So nominations would have to come from spouses, kids, friends and co-workers.

I can already imagine the names of the first year’s batch:

To Theodora Plavotsky, associate professor of physics, Yale University, for a 10-day raft trip in Big Ben National Park.

To Isidore Ng, painter and sculptor, for 12 home games of the New York Mets.

To Walter Devereaux, professor of classics, Long Island University, for two weeks on Cape Cod with the collected works of Elmore Leonard.