NEW HAVEN, CONN. – Westville neighborhood resident Mark Oppenheimer was up early on Wednesday, ready for his favorite annual ritual: checking the news to see if this was the year he’d win a MacArthur “genius grant.”
As in previous years at this time, he began with his award-day routine: cold shower, extra conditioner, trim the ear hair (in case of press conference), walk the dog, stop at “the ’buck” for a no-whip Frappuccino, quickly peruse the Times dining section.
Then he turned on his computer and saw that, at last, his work had paid off.
“I couldn’t believe it!” said the 40-year-old writer and teacher, who was raised in Springfield, Mass. “There it was, right in my Google alert: ‘Oppenheimer, others win ‘genius’ prize.’”
Oppenheimer immediately posted his good news on Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter, where he used the hashtag “#aboutfriggintime.” He ran upstairs to awaken his wife and four daughters, rousing the girls with promises of French toast “with extra syrup, the way Grandma lets you.”
It was only when his wife came downstairs and glanced at the screen of her husband’s laptop, sitting on the kitchen counter, that she realized his mistake.
“I thought to myself, ‘My husband’s an idiot,’” said Cyd Oppenheimer, a senior policy analyst for a nonprofit organization in downtown New Haven. “I mean, I know he’s no prize, okay? He can’t remember to take the trash out. Every story he tells, he gets wrong. He thinks he can sing. He says ‘irregardless.’ But this?
“So,” Oppenheimer’s wife continued, “I said to him, ‘Are you blind? It says Joshua Oppenheimer won the prize.’ I mean, we don’t even know a Joshua Oppenheimer. And this Oppenheimer lives in Denmark.”
According to the MacArthur Foundation, whose fellowships, known as “genius” grants, are each worth $625,000, one of this year’s winners is Joshua Oppenheimer, “a documentary filmmaker illuminating the social, psychological, and emotional dimensions of controversial subjects in works that redefine the dynamic between filmmaker and subject, film and audience.”
Mark Oppenheimer, by contrast, is a journalist and occasional adjunct teacher. He serves on the membership committee of Congregation Beth El – Keser Israel and has thought about volunteering for Friends of the New Haven Animal Shelter, “if and when I can find the time,” he said in an interview earlier today.
“I just feel like what I do may not be seen as quote-unquote ‘genius’ stuff, but I do everything I do with a certain genius,” Oppenheimer said. “You know?”
Asked for specifics, Oppenheimer shrugged.
“I don’t know, it’s just, like, a way of moving through the world,” he said. “You feel me? Wherever I go, I class up the joint. Like, I remember birthdays. There may be girls who remember birthdays, but do you know any dudes who do? At a wedding, I’ll get the Electric Slide going. I’ll be that guy.”
Lloyd Fishbane, Oppenheimer’s sophomore-year roommate in college, said that Oppenheimer has been talking about the MacArthur grant since the mid-1990s.
“One time, we were at this AEPi party,” recalled Fishbane, now an actuary in Toledo, Ohio. “And this asshole, Ari somebody-or-other, stepped to Oppy and was like, ‘Why you looking at my bitch?’ And Oppy was like, ‘Fuck your bitch.’ And this Ari guy – who, by the way, was fucking ginormous, totally ripped, with serious biceps, and one of his biceps had a tattoo that said ‘MASADA’ – this Ari guy was like, ‘Fuck what?’ And I was like, ‘Oppy, let’s get out of here, now.’ So I drag Oppy out of the party, but on the way out, he was like, ‘Yo, Ari, when I’m a MacArthur genius winner, you’ll be making my fries!’”
When asked about his former roommate’s recollection, Oppenheimer said he “wasn’t sure, but it could’ve happened that way.” But he said that what might have once seemed like arrogance “isn’t so unrealistic” 20 years later.
“Look,” Oppenheimer said, “I was just a punk kid then. But I think I stack up pretty well these days, you know? I mean, that Corinne Dufka, who won back in ’03—where’s her photojournalism now? I never see her stuff anymore. And Timothy Barrett, from ’09–the guy is a papermaker. Like, he fucking makes paper. So he’s more genius than me?”
Cyd Oppenheimer said that her husband “is a good man,” but that the annual buildup to the MacArthur announcements has taken its toll on their marriage.
“I love him,” she said. “I do, really. But this MacArthur obsession has got to stop. Like, one year the announcements fell the same week as Rosh Hashanah, and he was convinced that year’s judges were anti-Semitic. He just wouldn’t shut up about it.”
Oppenheimer said that although he is disappointed, he will make his peace with being left out again.
“It’s just such a joke,” Oppenheimer said. “The winners are all jokes. Like, in 2012, Benoit Rolland? The guy makes cello bows. How is that so genius?”