This post ranges far and wide as it covers prompt 4 for the University of Chicago for this year. Warning: this is one of my few remaining “freebie” posts for this year. Other posts will be available completely only on my private website, which is open to subscribers and college advising or application essay editing clients.
Essay Option 4. “…I [was] eager to escape backward again, to be off to invent a past for the present.” –The Rose Rabbi by Daniel Stern Present: pres·ent 1. Something that is offered, presented, or given as a gift. Let’s stick with this definition. Unusual presents, accidental presents, metaphorical presents, re-gifted presents, etc. — pick any present you have ever received and invent a past for it. Inspired by Jennifer Qin, admitted student Class of 2016.
This prompt, like the other U of Chicago prompts, opens up a vast space for invention and creativity by asking you to respond to what I will call a homonymic non-sequitur. But even with a quote prompt that repurposes its source material, like this one, it is still a good idea to look at the source of the quote. In this case you are more interested in understanding the weltanschauung of this prompt and in seeking inspiration than you are in getting some obscure information to use in the essay. You are, after all, going to be writing a work of fiction here.
The source of the quote in this prompt, The Rose Rabbi, is a near-future or alternate history novel, depending on how you look at it. So we will begin with a quick look at The Rose Rabbi, then discuss other topics that are worth exploring before writing to this prompt, including a thematic discussion in which I reference lyrics by The Talking Heads. This will be followed by a quick assessment of the homonym and its origins in the history of the English language and, for the first time this year, I will conclude this post by dashing off an example essay responding to this prompt.
I generally don’t use example essays for specific prompts because this tends to funnel people toward a particular response, but since I will be inventing a history for that great gift to civilization called espresso, I don’t think there is a danger that I will be coopting somebody else’s idea or, on the other hand, steering too many people toward my topic. Especially since I will be claiming that espresso was developed as an adjunct experiment during the Manhattan Project.
The Source of the Prompt: The Rose Rabbi and Its Theme
The Rose Rabbi is about a gent named Wolf Walker who tries to understand how he has arrived where he is in his life. This after being tasked with discerning whether one the clients of his advertising agency is the mafia. The novel is set in a New York and in a world which are both like and very much unlike ours, with political chaos widespread and the “Chateau Wars” engulfing Europe. Employed in the world of the huckster, of those who try to shape the reality of others, Wolf grapples with the great philosophical questions as he reaches his 40th birthday and tries to make sense of his life and place in the world. The Talking Heads aptly summed up the existential situation captured in this novel in the song Once in a Lifetime:
You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
You may find yourself in another part of the world
You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife
You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?
So that’s Wolf’s problem.
Your problem in writing about this prompt is a little more Shakespearean, though I think your essay should be informed by the spirit of Once in a Lifetime. What I mean by my reference to Shakespeare (and those of you who come to English after learning another language are more sharply aware of this than are most native speakers) is the fungibility of English vocabularity, the source of our rich tradition in puns and of this essay prompt.
The Prompt: Homonymic Causality With Non Sequitur Results
Ms. Quin, the author of our prompt, presents a literary non sequitur, conflating one definition of the word present with another. She is, of course, also working with a pair of homonyms to define her prompt, and I emphasize that, in choosing a definition and therefore a word that the original sentence did not intend, she is using a non sequitur that emphasizes this prompt’s attitude as well as establishing parameters for the topic. To put it more concisely, she’s inviting you to play: Unusual presents, accidental presents, metaphorical presents, re-gifted presents, etc. — pick any present you have ever received and invent a past for it.
Her homonymic invitation is deeply related to the nature of English. We English speakers are citizens of a mongrel linguistic world, for English is a pastiche of languages, Germanic at its root, an offspring of Norse cousins, reshaped by French, injected with Latin and Greek and borrowing from most major languages in the world. Even something as seemingly All-American as a cowboy riding up to a bunkhouse and asking, “Who’s the head honcho around here,” shows the mixed nature of English. Honcho comes into English from Japanese, and appears in English for the first time in the years after World War II, as a slang term interchangeable with “boss” . In Japanese it means “Master Sergeant,” and it became the term G.I.s used during the occupation of Japan when they wanted to find out who was in charge (noncommissioned officers are always in charge–ask any officer). The very history of this language is nearly as strange and convoluted as any imaginary history you could write.
As a result, we have a language composed of many languages, with words from completely different sources sharing the same space. Many of these words, jostling elbows as they find a place in the language, come to sound and look like existing words. Thus you have a rich supply of homonyms both native and imported. In this prompt, present, that point in time between past and future, and present, a gift. Think about this phenomenon as both a philosophical matter and as a source of material. In this way, the language itself is a gift to all of us. In fact, word etymologies are a great place to start considering where anything comes from, even if you are going to make up a history for the object or metaphor in question.
If this topic intrigues you but you are having trouble getting traction, I would suggest that you start by having a look at both the word gift and the word present. Try a good dictionary, like The American Heritage Dictionary or a good dictionary app, like the free Merriam Webster app through the App Store. Be sure to consider the etymologies of these words and to check out the synonyms and usage discussions.
Next, think of gifts broadly, listing objects that were gifts to you or discovered by you in one way or another, and then move on to substances, ideas, places, traits, and accidents or coincidences that you could now see as gifts. Eventually you will find a suitable “present” for which you can invent a history. Need I say that a gift may have been given intentionally or simply stumbled upon? A trait received from a parent or an answer to a question? A work of art (a poster facsimile counts here) or a bridge over troubled water? (Note that the latter is a metaphor, per the prompt.)
Start brainstorming. Don’t forget: you are inventing a history, so if you know the real history of the “present,” you need to make up some sort of alternate history that may include some facts but which should, to some degree, be your invention. Feel free to use your own non sequiturs.
And now I will, in keeping with the spirit of the prompt, and name dropping the U of Chicago in a wink-wink kind of way, fabricate a history for one of the great “presents” offered us by modern culture: espresso. Look below the essay for links and explanations that show how I mix fact with fiction in my “Secret History of Espresso:”
Espresso: Ah, the nectar of the gods, the elixir of invention, the quintessence of the coffee bean. Espresso is perhaps the greatest gift bequeathed to us by the marriage of nature and technology, and it is itself the father of more inventions than can be counted. How many late-night cram sessions, how many tech start ups, how many moments of artistic insight can be attributed to its influence? How many millions stand in line each morning, awaiting its benediction? Yet its true history is almost unknown. In fact, dare I say, I alone possess the true secret of the origin of espresso. And now I am, for the first time, going to share this tale with the world.
It all began in the dark days of World War II. Scientists assigned to the Manhattan project needed a version of coffee in keeping with their theoretical work related to the relativistic universe, and not wanting to master the engineering challenge presented by creating sub-atomic-sized cups of coffee, they settled for the demitasse holding an essence of coffee distilled at high speed and drunk slowly. They used a prototype nuclear reactor to heat the water and high pressure pumps to force the atomic water through a fine grind of coffee. All well and good. But then, after an experiment with time travel via wormholes went wrong, espresso was introduced into turn-of-the-century Italy.
This occurred when a scientist named Luigi Bezzera, having just distilled a fresh cup of espresso from the experimental, reactor-driven espresso machine which was located in the lab under the bleachers at the University of Chicago, trotted directly into a wormhole time-travel experiment being conducted by Enrico Fermi. Bezzera found himself suddenly transported to his grandfather’s village in Italy in the year 1899, still holding the freshly made espresso. The villagers, attracted by the enticing odor of the pungent extract of the coffee bean wanted to know, “How did you make that?” Lacking a nuclear reactor but able to utilize the mechanical and metallurgical talents of the extended Bezzera family to whom he was thus awkwardly introduced, Luigi perfected the first espresso machine in 1901.
It was as a result of this that espresso is widely but incorrectly thought to have been invented early in the 20th Century, in Italy, where it changed history by providing energy and inspiration to generations of espresso-drinking philosophers and rebels, and also established the paradox called the Doppio effect, a little-known corollary of both the Grandfather Paradox of time travel and the Twins Paradox of relativity. This was illustrated when Luigi visited the patent office in Bern, Switzerland, in 1904, with a portable example of his new espresso machine and, demonstrating it to a young patent clerk named Albert Einstein, provided the inspiration for Einstein’s insight into the relativity of time by producing a beverage distilled from coffee beans at near-light speed. The rest is scientific history.
This is, of course, also an example of the Mobius-strip pattern of history as it is Einstein’s Special and General Theory of Relativity that led to the moment under the bleachers when Luigi wandered, espresso in hand, into a gap in the space-time continuum, which then led to the transplantation of espresso technology to an earlier time and Italian place which led to . . . me having the gift of espresso-fueled inspiration for this little history, as I plot my own journey through the space-time continuum, from high school to the University of Chicago, where espresso was really invented.
Some Links and Etc for my Secret History of Espresso:
On wormholes, time travel and what Al Einstein has to do with it:
Enrico Fermi and the Manhattan Project at the University of Chicago (I presume that Enrico did drink espresso, but would have picked this habit up in his native Italy where it actually was invented. No pets were hurt in my little experiment in fictional history and many of my basic facts were true)
For Albert Einstein in Bern, Switzerland, where he did, indeed, work as a patent clerk while writing his treatise on Relativity:
Last but not least, I offer my apologies to the great Luigi Bezzera, who actually did invent the first espresso machine, though he was not transported half a century back through time to do so . . . I add that the modern pump expresso machine can be traced to the Faema machines from the 1960’S. Here’s an espresso timeline
And if you happen to by touring San Francisco, you can check out a couple of early-20th Century tower espresso machines still in operation at Tosca Cafe, then go around the corner to Trieste for a modern espresso in a classic environment, or across the street to Cafe Puccini or visit Roma (Warning: Tosca uses boozy additives to most of their “espresso” drinks.
And finally, note that this blog post, including my example essay, is copyrighted material, available for use by individuals but not to be shared or used commercially without my express, written permission. (Need I add how dumb it would be to copy my essay and present it as your own work? Also note that this essay is 587 words long and so would need to lose about a paragraph of material to fit the 500 word limits imposed by the authorities. If this were your essay, and you asked me to edit it, I’d eighty-six the last paragraph.)