Turning down a grant not offered

A friend phoned the other day - the one who keeps telling everybody his dreams and asking what they mean. The source of his latest dream was no mystery. He had been reading one evening about the MacArthur Foundation fellows, who receive annual stipends ranging from $28,000 to $50,000 for five years, no strings attached. He also confessed to tucking away a generous slice of mince pie left over from Thanksgiving.

Shortly after midnight, by his calculations, a phone rang in his dream. When he picked it up, a rich Sydney Greenstreet voice - the kind you get in dreams - said: ''Congratulations, my dear sir. You have been awarded a MacArthur Foundation prize for your outstanding work in blur-blur-blur.''

Here the phone line in our friend's dream crackled, cleverly concealing his field of excellence.

The suave voice went on: ''Your yearly remuneration will be - let's see - $57 ,000. The check - ha! ha! - is in the mail.''

Our friend spluttered: ''Are you sure you have the right 'my dear sir'? If not, this joke is in very bad taste.''

Sydney Greenstreet pronounced our friend's odd and difficult surname to prove he had the right party and, with a flourishing ''Good night, my dear sir,'' hung up.

By a coincidence it was just after midnight in the dream too. Our friend was about to wake up his family to share the sensationally good news when he realized, in the slo-mo way we register things in dreams, that he felt a strange panic, as if this were not sensationally good news altogether.

Our friend is an amateur jazz clarinetist. For years, when he hadn't been telling everybody his dreams, he had been sighing about the breakthrough he could make on his instrument if he had the time - if he didn't have to work for a living. Indeed this fantasy led to many a nighttime dream. Benny Goodman with six figures in a money fund was the basic plot.

Now, in his dream, he lay in bed and felt these unwelcome qualms. The MacArthur Foundation must believe that if you prime enough pumps, then creativity, pure as spring water, will pour out somebody's spout. Was this an unreasonable hope? Our friend had never thought so, especially in his own case - up until now.

The next morning he read how the recipients were planning to spend their money - count on the Wall Street Journal to ask! First, there was travel. Robert Penn Warren, working on his second year, was going to North Africa. Robert Coles had an itinerary of North Ireland, Brazil, South Africa, and Germany. Clearly the airlines would receive a MacArthur sub-grant.

Some recipients were buying a new car and preparing to spruce up the old house. The chap already sharing a joint income of $100,000 a year wasn't sure what he was going to do with the extra change.

Stephen Jay Gould, a geologist at Harvard, told his would-be interviewer: ''One of the things this money enables me to do is not to speak to reporters.''

Then our friend stumbled onto a pattern. Most of the recipients spoke of increasing their donations to charities. Here, our friend decided, was the pressure point he had felt. If one had to handle the anxiety of a foundation grant by giving to another foundation, he wanted no part of it. ''No strings,'' he concluded, imposed the most terrible responsibility of all.

Our suddenly ascetic friend, his friends agreed, was overreacting. Big dreamers tend to do that. Still, the care and feeding of genius can become a puzzle. Money is a necessity, and just as inevitably an embarrassment and a confusion.

The starving genius is a catastrophe to himself and a rebuke to the rest of us. But how does anybody solve the dilemma of giving a genius independence without somehow making him or her dependent?

Our friend, rather relieved and dreaming less these days, is playing his clarinet more. At the moment he is shaping a solo dedicated to the MacArthur Foundation - ''Gee, Baby, Ain't I Good to You?'

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