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They’re Baaack: The University of Chicago Application Essay Prompts for 2017-2018

In Applying to the University of Chicago, Chicago Typo Essay, Essay on Joubert, Uncategorized, University of Chicago Application Essay, University of Chicago Application Essay Example, University of Chicago Application Essay Prompt Two, University of Chicago Under-Discussed Topic Essay on June 26, 2017 at 11:43 pm

And this year, the essay prompts from U Chicago, a.k.a. “The Place Fun Goes to Die” are a little more lightweight and also more personal than in previous years.  Overall, this year’s U Chicago prompts are more about a quirky personal response than deep philosophy–though you can always find something deeper, or at least interesting to say with these prompts, with a little extra thought.  

And if you wanted to take a risk while writing an essay, this is the place:  Chicago pretty much begs you to take risks, wake up the app reader, show a little originality.   So be anything but boring.  

To show what I mean, we will now take a look at the first two of the University of Chicago Extended Essay Prompts for the 2017-2018 application season: 

Extended Essay Questions:

(Required; Choose one)

Essay Option 1.

“The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress.” – Joseph Joubert

Sometimes, people talk a lot about popular subjects to assure ‘victory’ in conversation or understanding, and leave behind topics of less popularity, but great personal or intellectual importance. What do you think is important but under-discussed?

-Anonymous Suggestion

 

So let’s look into the background of  this prompt before we look at an example of how to write about it:  it is based on the relatively obscure Enlightenment French author, Joseph Joubert, and it seems aimed at our present national moment of mutual incomprehension:   What, you have never heard of Joubert?  Neither has 99% of the populace.

He actually is quite the dead white guy, a man who wrote aphorisms that read like the best haiku.   But he was also a writer who never actually wrote that book he was going to write; instead he wrote many aphorisms and short descriptions that distilled the essence of this or that,  as he hung out and engaged in witty conversation in the great salons of Paris and pretty much “enjoyed the journey.”   The journey over the destination is a cliché, of course, but if you read some of his stuff, like his Pensées, you will see what I mean.  Not that you need to read Joubert much to write this prompt . . . but it could help.  For example, this–  

A hard intellect is a hammer that can do nothing
but crush. Hardness of intellect is sometimes no less
harmful and hateful than hardness of heart.

Or this:

Some persons there are who, intellectually, are
reasonable enough, but whose life is quite irrational ;
and there are, on the other hand, those whose life is
rational and whose minds are devoid of reason.

The last one sounds like a pretty good sociological take on America today, no?

For those of you acquainted with Montaigne, Joubert is  what Montaigne claimed to be–a free explorer of whatever was on his mind.  Here is what his most recent translator into English, Paul Auster had to say about Joubert, in part:  

Neither a poet nor a novelist, neither a philosopher nor an essayist, Joubert was a man of letters without portfolio whose work consists of a vast series of notebooks in which he wrote down his thoughts every day for more than forty years. All the entries are dated, but the notebooks cannot be construed as a traditional diary, since there are scarcely any personal remarks in it. Nor was Joubert a writer of maxims in the classical French manner. He was something far more oblique and challenging, a writer who spent his whole life preparing himself for a work that never came to be written, a writer of the highest rank who paradoxically never produced a book.”

So take all that together, and you have some sense of the spirit of the question posed by Anonymous here; while you can pretty much riff off of a U Chicago question in any way that you can invent, they do offer some prompts that seem to have a political or cultural slant, and this is one of them, a prompt for a polarized age of argument in which most of use are having trouble understanding the other side (Qualification: Understanding does not mean agreeing, and I believe that the conflict in the U.S.A. is over real values . . . and will have a real impact on lives).

 If you like the prompt, but nothing is coming immediately to mind, a public e-text of Joubert’s Pensées is available in jumbled form here:  Pensees.  Just scroll down past all the documentation and introductory material to get right to it.  You might find an idea by going to the source.  Note that this does not mean you have to use the quote in your essay–that can be its own cliché–the idea may work well put into your own words.

Another way to look for topics that are not discussed enough is  to look at some topics that are almost certainly discussed too much, at least in kind of blind arguments that Joubert deplored :   politics, race, climate change, Trump (Trump is as much a sociological and psychological as he is political, so I give him a separate category. So true).  

Does that mean you cannot and should not write about any of these for this prompt?  Well, no.  Surely there is some aspect of these that is overlooked, or more to the point, surely most of our conversations about these things are clichéd, and clichéd in that deepest sense of using clichés to avoid dealing with the truth?   Take Trump.  I see him as an excellent example of the outcome of Winner-Take-All . . . parenting.  And I am not talking about Trump’s kids; I am talking about Fred Trump here.  Think of Donald Trump as a boy, and you have a different kind of discussion.  Maybe even some empathy–which does not mean agreement, by the way. 

Let me sum up our lesson on the U Chicago essays so far:  If  there is a background (like Joubert), it is better to know about it; it may not be useful, but you may be missing the point of the prompt if you know nothing about the background.  Not that being clueless will necessarily hurt, as a clever non sequitur can also be a winner.  But still, I would want to be choosing to write my essay as a kind of alternate-universe response that uses the opening quote as a way to go somewhere totally unconnected; I would not want to be doing that by accident.  

And now, more briefly, a typo prompt for number 2:

Essay Option 2.

Due to a series of clerical errors, there is exactly one typo (an extra letter, a removed letter, or an altered letter) in the name of every department at the University of Chicago. Oops! Describe your new intended major. Why are you interested in it and what courses or areas of focus within it might you want to explore? Potential options include Commuter Science, Bromance Languages and Literatures, Pundamentals: Issues and Texts, Ant History… a full list of unmodified majors ready for your editor’s eye is available here: https://collegeadmissions.uchicago.edu/academics/majors-minors.

So the obvious place to start would be with your actual interest area–take me; I would have been looking at things like Comparative Literature; hmmm . . .

Comparative Bitterature?  The knowledge and Study of all things bitter, from the best espresso sourced from a tribe of failed hipsters who now populate a long-lost South American coffee plantation, producing the deepest, darkest bitterest espresso ever known to man;  to the bitter  souls of internet trolls or the sense of defeat experienced by ex-presidential candidates. 

Notice that   in changing the majors via a typo, you are, in fact, inventing your own major, so you do not have to actually look at any subject you are interested in.  Look for the words you can change in interesting ways–and that is the obvious intention of this prompt:  to test your spirit of invention.  

I will leave it at that, other than to add that I would conclude my essay on Comparative Bitterature by explaining the purpose of my created major:  Comparative Biterature aims to reacquaint the cotton-candy culture of my own country, the U. S. of A, with the benefits of the bitter, which my tai chi master taught me  when he said, as I stayed down in a full horse-stance squat, “You must eat bitter before you appreciate sweet.  Which is why you will hold build up enough strength to hold that horse stance for 15 minutes before I teach you the next form . . .  Ouch.

Start creating some typos; I will be back in the next week or so for another post on this year’s U Chicago prompts.   

 

The University of Chicago Supplements for 2016-2017: A Quick Sample on Vestigiality

In Applying to the University of Chicago, Brainstorming a College Application Essay, Uncategorized, University of Chicago Application Essay, University of Chicago Application Essay Example, University of Chicago Essay Prompts, University of Chicago Essay Prompts for 2016-2017, Vestigiality Essay on October 21, 2016 at 11:28 pm

Greetings U Chicago Want-To-Be’s. Welcome to a look at the University of Chicago application essays for 2016-2017. Our topic today:

Essay Option 5.

Vestigiality refers to genetically determined structures or attributes that have apparently lost most or all of their ancestral function, but have been retained during the process of evolution. In humans, for instance, the appendix is thought to be a vestigial structure. Describe something vestigial (real or imagined) and provide an explanation for its existence.

—Inspired by Tiffany Kim, Class of 2020

So there are plenty of vestigial artifacts in the world.  Take the internal combustion engine for example, or pull back to look at how we generate energy, and you will realize that we haven’t made all that many changes since James Watt perfected the steam engine in the 18th Century.  Seriously:  what is a nuclear reactor but a giant tea kettle?  So looking at technologies we really should be replacing is one way to go at this prompt.

On the other hand, I would point out  that our ideas about vestigiality are often  wrongheaded.  Do we not call many things useless because maybe we just don’t get it?  A short history of science shows that–and the most up to date science suggests that even your appendix still has a reason to be. (More on that in a moment.)

To me this question says more about our idea that the latest and greatest is always the best than it does about the usefulness of our appendix. So to turn this prompt against itself, which is often the best way to approach a UChi prompt, I would use the question  to explore how we define vestigiality. Most interesting of all is how each age has all the answers until the next age comes along to mock it, failing simultaneously to recognize its own blindness about other things.

Tiffany Kim may be a member of the class of 2020, which means that she graduated from high school with the latest and greatest that an uber-achieving youth could learn in AP Biology,  but her question is pretty 20th Century when it comes to her example:  the appendix. Those of us keeping the pulse of the newest and best in science learned recently that the appendix does indeed retain an important function, to wit: it appears that it is a refuge for all the good bacteria we need when our guts get disrupted and flushed by illnesses (think Montezuma’s revenge). It is to your body as a country estate was to somebody in early Renaissance Italy who retreated and closed the gates to wait out the plague, after which they would safely go out into the world again.  One pictures bacteria telling stories and engaging in libertine pursuits while they wait out whatever ailment is purging one’s guts.  (That’s a Decameron allusion, for those who want to know).

To justify my claims,  I quote one of only many sources for the new view on the appendix, here: Dartmouth says au contraire on the appendix. Of course,  we can lose the appendix and go on, though armed with modern science we might want to grab some probiotics any time we have an intestinal bug, but we can lose a lot of things it would be better to have and go on. Like our legs. I don’t find any of my body parts vestigial, even using my tailbone when I sit.

So much for vestigiality.  That’s your first lesson on how to look at a U Chi prompt from another point of view.

On the Other Hand

On he other hand, keep the idea of the prompt; instead of arguing that vestigiality itself is outdated, you could look at many contemporary and seemingly cutting-edge ideas as out-of-date.  In particular I think of all those ideas that are memes bouncing around in everyday speech, used by people who want to seem techno-hip and tres moderne.  Let’s face it:  once a cutting-edge idea filters out into the world of talking heads, you know it’s already a cliche.  In keeping with that spirit, let me offer my own short list of  cutting-edge pop-tech concepts that are already vestigial ideas:

Humans uploading their brains into computers to live forever

While I deeply admire the thought experiments about this concept from science fiction writers, (check out Solar Lottery by Philip K Dick, in which a man’s consciousness becomes trapped in a rapidly decaying robot-and that’s just a subplot), I think that the current guru peddling this idea, Ray Kurzweil, has painted himself into a corner, philsophically speaking, because he views the brain itself as a kind of computational device, which it isn’t. It produces its results in a way that relates only to computers in certain outcomes, but the processes are not alike:  No one’s and zero’s are being manipulated in circuits in the brain, and the brain in fact has no circuits.  We are using and analogy or a metaphor when we say the brain has circuits.

Before even wondering what a human being’s memories would be as data stored in a computer (hint:  not human memories)  Just ask these questions to check on how silly this idea is:  What does it mean to have a human mind without a human body, anyway? And when computers do “think” will it look anything like what we do? (No).  Can a computer can think about sex, hamburgers, how to catch the perfect break on a wave and wonder why its ankle itches? Does a computer fear death?  Does it like kittens?  Does a computer  have any emotions or need them? And conversely, is human thought in any way separable from emotion? (Last one has an easy answer:  Nope. ) That’s just a short list. For more reading, start here: Your Brain is not a Computer and vice-versa.) The real deal here is that people like Kurzweil and Peter Thiel fear death and are in the midst of creating their own techno-religion in which really smart rich guys can buy eternal life while they meanwhile tinker with how to construct AI systems that would not so much replace us as render us redundant.

The Humanities Don’t Matter

Speaking of A.I., when the robots take all our jobs, the only thing left for humans will be the humanities. And appreciating beauty and food and sex and looking at the stars and telling stories and painting. Oh, wait, that all is or is tied into the humanities. Poetry, anyone?

Tech will save us

It is necessary but not sufficient. Tech has changed many industries, but the fundamental social arrangments are still the same, and its the social agreements, like money, how it is made and who controls it that are the real deal.  Even with 24-7 online connectivity, the United States is still a capitalistic, commerce-driven representative democracy that provides most of the electricity keeping the internet real by burning fossil fuel, with all the externalities that comes with, like climate change and ocean acidification.  We are all connected all the time, but look at something like food:  even with drone delivery of food boxes, you’d still be dealing with a largely centralized  industrialized agricultural system with farmers or corporate farms shipping product to markets largely through middlemen, while  all those personalized, home-centered high-tech hydroponic wallgardens are pretty much what my old Italian neighbors used to have in their backyard (but used les energy to grow the stuff in the garden, which was in the ground, soaking up free solar energy from above, no constant water pumping needed).  Also notice how any technology with the power to transform and redeem also has the power to destroy. So you could say it’s all about politics and activism, supplemented by tech, kids.

A supplemental vestigial idea is that all these transformative technologies are totally powerful and totally safe, simultaneously. For an amusing example of this, consult any interview in which Craig Ventner, he of human genome fame, talks about Frankenstein and by doing so shows that he has never read the book,  while he explains  how his bacteria will save the world by creating diesel fuel that recycles carbon out of the atmosphere.  Of course it is not actually getting rid of any carbon, and it’s not doing anything about the energy inefficiency of having most of us in 1-2 ton vehicles that waste most of the energy that drives them, but at least it feels like some smart guy is going to save us.  To which I add one more thing:  Whole lotta water needed for that project, Craig.  Whole. Lotta. Water. And land.

 

That college is unnecessary for smart kids

Seriously?  It is totally fascinating to me to see all these Silicon-Libertarians who went to elite schools trashing college.  Take Peter Thiel and his foundation and fellowship.   Thiel has two Stanford degrees but advocates against college for smart kids and to promote  his idea has created his own little tech incubator on the cheap via his foundation.  Yes, that is what it looks like to me.  Gather the smartest kids you can interested enough to apply and go through the process, get them to present an idea they want to develop, and then give a small number of them money and support.  That’s a tech incubator, right?  Or is it the Ivy League?

And of course any tech incubator will have some slice of the pie that is baked in it.   That Thiel foundation does not look so altruistic anymore, does it? As a comparison with the Ivy League, the admit rate for the Thiel Foundation’s first Thiel Fellowship class was 6%.  Not a good admit rate, a bit better than  Harvard and Princeton, but not by much.  Of course,  the kids who got in get 100 grand and access to all kinds of Silicon Valley mentoring and venture capital, but so far they do stuff like make caffeine spray and marginal apps.  It’s probably a good experience for these kids, but it’s a totally skewed take on not going to college–how many people does Thiel want to hand 110k and mentoring to?  How many can shape a life without formal training?

If you want an unbiased and one-stop place to see if college is worth it in the terms most people [Especially those aging hipsters who all went to elite colleges hanging out with young hackers whom they tell not to go to college—Hmm, I really need a word for old parasites feeding on idealistic young tech kids–Tech vampires?  Sugar mommas and daddies?  Somebody help me out here]. Have a look here for more: College and Income from People You Can Trust [The Pew Center].

So that’s a few ideas, and the kind of thinking that you need to show in a U Chi essay.  Your mantra:  Don’t follow the herd.

And here’s my final tip: make your own list then start clicking to find ideas for you to build a case in your essay for U Chicago.

All the best until my next post on, um,  I’ll get back to you on that. OR get in touch and let me know what you need a post on—I follow the wisdom of the crowd for some new topics. Vote early and vote often . . .at wordguild@gmail.com.

Also contact me for editing assistance. ASAP actually, as sometime before Thanksgiving my calendar will likely be booked through January 1 (though the occasional spot will open up even then when a client misses a deadline).

 

 

The University of Chicago Application Essays: Prompt 2, Part 2

In Application, University of Chicago, University of Chicago Application Essay, University of Chicago Application Essay Example, University of Chicago Application Essay Prompt Two, University of Chicago Application Essays, University of Chicago Translation Essay on July 10, 2014 at 10:53 am

I gave background to U Chicago’s Application Essay Prompt 2 in my last post; in this post, I will provide some more specific suggestions and sources for essay inspiration.  Before I do, here is the prompt, again:

Essay Option 2.

In French, there is no difference between “conscience” and “consciousness”. In Japanese, there is a word that specifically refers to the splittable wooden chopsticks you get at restaurants. The German word “fremdschämen” encapsulates the feeling you get when you’re embarrassed on behalf of someone else. All of these require explanation in order to properly communicate their meaning, and are, to varying degrees, untranslatable. Choose a word, tell us what it means, and then explain why it cannot (or should not) be translated from its original language.

Inspired by Emily Driscoll, an incoming student in the Class of 2018

Alrighty.  So my first suggestion is not to accept Ms. Driscoll’s argument that some words are untranslatable, because they are all translatable.  However, even once they have been translated, a foreign person still may not really get it.  One reason:  culture, which includes language but also history, philosophy, geography, weather, technology, etc, etc, etc.  A concept like the Chinese idea of Chi is actually pretty easy to translate but not so easy to fully understand–it can best be translated as energy but also can have to do with a person’s temperament and mood, with the weather and time of year and its influence on the person, with the “energy” or nature of food a person eats–and the chi of food alters as well, depending on the way food is cooked.  A fever manifests a disturbance in chi, but is also  a kind of chi in itselfand a martial artist of skill will use a person’s chi against him.

Notice that much of this does not fit the western concept of energy, though electricity is a also a kind of chi.  A nonnative speaker of Mandarin can become fairly fluent in the language but would need to, for example, study some martial arts under a master, maybe do some qi gong and learn about Chinese cookery, architecture and art in order to have a decent grip on Chi, on its meanings and manifestations in Chinese thought and experience.  So looking at language as an expression of culture, and at culture as a kind of closed room that must be entered and explored before many words–many concepts–can be fully understood . . .  is a good way to approach this essay.  There are also personal and familial reasons why a person may not be equipped to understand a word–even a native Mandarin speaker may not have the understanding of Chi that, say, a Taoist master who is also an acupuncturist and painter would have.

My second suggestion is to look at idiomatic expressions.  You might want to start with your own language, Oh Native English Speakers. Of course, given the different varieties of English, it can be argued that we Americans are speaking a foreign tongue to those Brits.  Or vice-versa.  A famous Brit whose name escapes my data banks once claimed that American speech is slang.  Contrasting the Queen’s English and the Colonies’ English is a fun exercise in itself–you can start with those slang and idioms that do translate, pairing them, then find idioms that do not translate at all; for example:

American English/Queens English

a dust up/argy bargy

cock up/snafu

biscuit or bikky/Cookie

bobby/cop

technical expert (or geek, in some uses)/boffin

screwed/buggered

opportunist, schemer or swindler/chancer

chat or gossip/chinwag

reconnoiter or check out/dekko

old man or boss or old and the boss (and dreary and annoying)/gaffer

The next step is not just to look at what the equivalent expression is, but to try to figure out why/from what the term came.  Again, notice that they are translateable, but there is a cultural flavor and flair with many slang expressions.  A good example is dekko, which is not English in origin; it comes from  British military slang and derived from the Hindustani dhek/dekho meaning “to see”. It is also less commonly decco, deccie, deek, deeks.  It is also an example of what I mean about language and culture.  The British Empire ruled over India for well over a century, and in the process of garrisoning India, it brought back more than chutney and curry. It brought back many words and forever altered British culture.   Given that many of British soldiers were also working class, you find quite a bit of this new language entering through more street or slang dialects, like Cockney, which also has a lot of Romany (these people are commonly called gypsy) words.  Like this: Put up your dukes, pal.  Look the last two words up for more.  They are Romany in origin.

Cockney itself would be an excellent place for you to look for inspiration, though you should keep in mind that Cockney has just about died out–the last true Cockney speakers were fading away by the 1990’s, pretty much as the East End of London faded as  a stronghold of working class whites/Cockneys.  Notice how slang evolution is tied into history and slang, as well as “proper” language evolves over time.   So slang and idioms are a great source for an essay like this, and you can use the wonders of the internet to look for ideas,  making lists of words and looking for ways to connect words and concepts that say something larger about culture.

To start working with idioms, try British slang, Cockney, and American slang as search terms and give it some time. There are many sites and posts devoted to this, and quality varies.  Make lists and double-check definitions against other sources and sites–I will provide some good dictionaries and other sources for looking up and crosschecking, below.  What makes you laugh would probably also make your essay reader laugh, which is a good thing (as long as they are not laughing at you.)

To recap and add an example:  the history of language and word meanings, whether they are considered idiomatic or otherwise, is  a great place to look for essay ideas and content–words do change meanings over time, just as words are born and words die.  In the 13th Century, the word gay   meant bright (brightly colored), cheerful, et al.  It had nothing remotely to do with sexual orientation.  Then, in 1890’s America, it gained a slang meaning–a gay lady was a prostitute (I guess somebody was happy.)   Then, in the 20th Century, the term, which already had a double meaning associated with being happy or bright, and with suspect or illicit sex, was assigned to homosexuals, then adopted by the homosexual rights movement; but this change in meaning then led to suburban youth by the 1990’s referring to something suspect or bad as “gay” –a change that illustrates the adolescent fear of being different,  especially sexually, and conversely, of punishing those who are different.  This is an example of a  psycho-sociological effect that is reflected in the change in a word’s meaning.  Words change all the time, but not always this drastically–fear and prejudice are powerful influences, even on words.  When you write your essay, your focus might be on how the history of language is closely tied to sociology and psychology.  Our words say a lot about us.

To close things out, I am going to recommend some source materials, and as part of that paste in a recent article that shows a good way to open an essay like this . . . Hello loyal readers.  This is the second post on this Chicago prompt, and you have to pay a subscription to my private blog to get full access to this post and quite a few other posts, past and future.  You have about half of the post available in this sample.  If this seems unfair, that’s probably because you have been taught to disrespect the value of written work, due to the parasitic nature of most of the big internet companies, which offer creators little compensation while essentially giving the creative work of others away for free.  A subscription for full access to all of my posts is available for the small price of $15.  You send me an e-mail, with the subject heading “subscription, please,” and I will send you an invoice for $15.   After you pay it, I will give you access to my private blog, which has all of my posts available in full, including the rest of this post.

One more thing–a caveat emptor–I do not delete old posts from other application years, partly as a matter of historical record, but also because many universities repeat the same prompts, or use prompts that are similar to prompts used in the past.  If you see that a post was put up during the last application season, you need to double-check to be sure about the prompts for this year’s applications at your specific universities–we are currently in the 2014-2015 application season.  The software of this site will link “related” posts, but they are sometimes from previous years.  Be sure to visit the university website to check on application requirements and timelines for this year.

Speaking of which, I am still accepting some college advising and application essay editing clients.  E-mail me soon to inquire and to secure a spot.  As of this writing, July 10, 2014, I am fully booked in early August, but can accept college application editing business in July and from the latter part of August on.  This will change in the coming weeks, of course,  as new clients take up existing space in my schedule, so it’s better not to wait too long.  I only have so much time. . . See you soon.

P.S.  The ads you sometimes see below some of my posts are inserted by the WordPress people.  Allowing them to advertise allows me to save expenses on this platform, and by keeping my fixed costs down, I am able to offer not only the most effective editing service you are likely to find, I am also cheaper than all those big operations you may have heard of.  I myself do not see the ads unless I access my own site via an outside search.  If you do dislike one of the ads, please let me know at the e-mail above, and I will have a look and contact WordPress, if necessary.  Thanks.

University of Chicago Application Essay Prompt 4: A Lesson in Invention and Homonymic Non-Sequiturs

In College Application Essay Example, Essay About A Quote, Essay and Literary Terms, Essay Beginning With a Quote, University of Chicago Application Essay, University of Chicago Application Essay Example, University of Chicago Essay Prompts on July 25, 2012 at 11:05 am

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:

Are Wormholes Tunnels for Time Travel?

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)

Fermi at U of Chicago

For Albert Einstein in Bern, Switzerland, where he did, indeed, work as a patent clerk while writing his treatise on Relativity:

Einstein in Bern

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

Espresso Past and Present

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.

Tosca

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.)