It is that time of year again, when the unsuspecting get phone calls informing them that they've just won six-figure grants they didn't ask for.
The 1998 MacArthur Fellowships have been awarded to 29 men and women, ranging from an ecologically minded Arizona cattle rancher to a moralist. The group includes eight Californians, three of whom are from the Los Angeles area: historian Mike Davis, attorney and Asian American advocate Stewart Kwoh, and linguistic anthropologist Elinor Ochs.
The prestigious fellowships, announced Monday, are akin to the lottery--with a twist. They arrive out of the blue, with no strings attached. But rather than chance deciding who will get the $220,000 to $375,000 grants, an anonymous committee with an eclectic taste for the inventive rules.
The foundation's goal is no less than to recognize and nurture talented, innovative thinkers and doers, whatever their field. Potential recipients cannot apply for the grants and, more often than not, do not have a clue that they have even been suggested for consideration.
Davis was so stunned to get a phone call from the offices of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation last week that he called the foundation back to make sure it wasn't a hoax.
"I had not the slightest inkling and I was quite staggered to find out it was true," said Davis, who will receive $315,000, paid, like all the grants, over a five year-period.
Ochs, a UCLA professor, has been waking at 5 every morning since receiving the news of her $320,000 award. "I can't think of what I might be doing with my grant. I'm still in extreme shock," she said.
Davis, author of "City of Quartz," a grimly insightful examination of 20th century Los Angeles history, knows exactly what at least some of his money is going to be used for. "Paying off debts."
A leftist ex-trucker, Davis, 52, said his initial reaction to the grant was more one of a "superstitious Irishman" than a Marxist. He felt like hiding under the bed, convinced that such a windfall would inevitably be followed by disaster.
"I'm kind of notorious for feeling sorry for myself and complaining," he admitted, adding that he will now have to abandon that pastime.
Analyzing a city that attracts extreme descriptions--it is either paradise or hell--Davis likes to explore the hellish aspects of Los Angeles, such as its racial strife, social polarization and indifferent middle class.
His new book, "The Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster," due out in August, promises to be no cheerier. It discusses, among other things, the many and varied ways Los Angeles has met its demise in fiction, as well as "why we're so nervous and insecure" about our relationship to the environment.
Next, he will tackle the subject of environmental history and war.
As a leading advocate of Asian Americans and executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, Kwoh has an intimate knowledge of the racial friction Davis dissects. And he is intent on reducing it.
Even before the 1992 Los Angeles riots, he was trying to bridge the city's ethnic divisions and continues that effort through coalitions, leadership forums and activism.
"I think we still have rocky race relations," said Kwoh, 49. "I think there's some improvement but we continue to have a lot of tensions. . . . It's not enough for people to just passively tolerate each other. We have to go beyond that to a dynamic process of working together to solve problems or to improve communities or schools. That's what we don't see enough of."
Kwoh, who will receive $300,000, mused that becoming a MacArthur fellow "kind of puts more pressure on you to be the best at what you're interested in doing. What I'm interested in doing is still advancing justice for Asian Pacific Americans and the poor.
"I hope I'll be more effective in what I do," continued Kwoh, who has guided the Asian Pacific center as it has grown into the nation's largest legal agency for Asian Americans. "Who knows if I will be. I do think it's a tremendous honor."
Ochs, 53, said getting the fellowship reminded her of a television show she watched as a child. The show, called "The Millionaire," was essentially about the aftermath of sudden wealth. Each week, $1 million would be delivered in a suitcase to a different person, who then had to figure out what to do with it.
Not that she entertained such fantasies. "We never allow ourselves to think what we might want to do if we had all the options," she said.
Still, since getting the foundation phone call last Wednesday, when she was writing the final chapter of a book she is co-authoring, Ochs said "there have been these little moments where that possibility is there and it's just incredible--having this fairy god mother."
Ochs helped develop a field of linguistics known as language socialization--the study of the way children acquire language and are shaped by the culture around them.
She has studied the dinner conversations of American families, concluding that dinner table talk amounts to a type of collaborative problem solving that is then used in other settings, such as the classroom.
In a 1995 book she co-authored, "Constructing Panic," Ochs examined the way in which agoraphobics maintained their condition through language and passed it on to their children by painting the greater world as something that could not be controlled.
The other 1998 MacArthur Fellows are:
Janine Antoni, 34, artist, New York, $225,000.
Ida Applebroog, 68, painter and moralist, New York, $375,000.
Ellen Barry, 44, director of Legal Services for Prisoners With Children, Oakland, $275,000.
Tim Berners-Lee, 43, conceived and developed the World Wide Web, Lexington, Mass., $270,000.
Linda Bierds, 53, poet, Bainbridge Island, Wash., $320,000.
Bernadette Brooten, 47, religion professor, Cambridge, Mass., $290,000.
John Carlstrom, 41, experimental astrophysicist, Chicago, $260,000.
Nancy Folbre, 45, economist, Montague, Mass., $280,000.
Avner Greif, 42, economist, Stanford, $265,000.
Kun-Liang Guan, 35, biochemist, Ann Arbor, Mich., $230,000.
Gary Hill, 47, video artist, Seattle, $290,000.
Edward Hirsch, 48, poet and essayist, Houston, $295,000.
Ayesha Jalai, 42, historian, New York, $265,000.
Charles Johnson, 50, novelist, cartoonist, Seattle, $305,000.
Leah Krubitzer, 37, neuroscientist, Davis, $240,000.
Charles Lewis, 44, executive director of Center for Public Integrity, Alexandria, Va., $275,000.
William McDonald, 46, cattle rancher, Douglas, Ariz., $285,000.
Peter Miller, 33, European history scholar, Berlin, $220,000.
Don Mitchell, 36, cultural geographer, Syracuse, N.Y., $235,000.
Rebecca Nelson, 37, plant pathologist, Lima, Peru, $240,000.
Ishmael Reed, 60, literary innovator, Oakland, $355,000.
Benjamin Santer, 43, atmospheric scientist, Livermore, Calif., $270,000.
Karl Sims, 36, computer scientist, Cambridge, Mass. $235,000.
Dorothy Q. Thomas, 38, human rights activist, New York, $245,000.
Leonard Zeskind, 48, researcher and expert on white supremacist movements, Kansas City, Mo., $295,000.
Mary Zimmerman, 37, director and playwright, Evanston, Ill., $240,000.