creative catalysts: once upon a time there was a perfect coffeehouse (and other fables)

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(Inside The Java House on Washington St. in Iowa City, Iowa).

On an otherwise ordinary street in Iowa City, the perfect coffeehouse sits tucked between a bar and a discount clothing store. It is perpetually dim, offering an ambience reminiscent of the space between the early hours of the morning and the first shock of sunlight. Then there are those lush Latinate words that taste of fine art and sultry outdoor cafes: espresso, cappuccino, macchiato, dopio, americano. Yes, in the perfect coffeehouse tongues lavish in oratory complexity, in their ability to reaffirm their own sophistication. The perfect coffeehouse is teaming with tables and comfortable chairs, at times mismatched, scuffed and broken, at times curated, clean and poised. These tables and chairs do a remarkable job of always appearing full but not overwhelmed, which suggests the success and validity of the perfect coffeehouse. Noses are nurtured by various aromas- the smooth kiss of chocolate, the rich rot of wine, the nuttiness, the sting of acid- elicited by brews hailing from distant lands and fields in Colombia, Antigua, Ethiopia, Yemen. All of the ceramic cups are white and all of the saucers are white and it is all so chic and simple in the perfect coffeehouse. It has free Wi-Fi. It boasts a plethora of house-baked croissants, muffins and scones.

There are frazzled novelists with papers sprawled haphazardly. There are sorority girls swirling their silly straws in their saccharine drinks. An elderly gentleman is highlighting the New York Times and petting his dog beneath the table. A barista with an octopus tattoo on her forearm is frothing milk. Someone, maybe God, calls my name. My “Giant of the Earth” pour- over coffee is obsidian and gorgeous. I submerge myself in an overstuffed chair pocked with gaping holes of various sizes. I swear my allegiance to the perfect coffeehouse and sip with gusto, scorching my tongue.

Four years later, I have successfully navigated my way through Iowa City’s 45 other registered coffeehouses, most of which were lusterless in comparison to the paradigm of “the perfect coffeehouse.” I am a bonafied caffeine-queen. I wield my French Press like a scepter and I wear my clandestine affair with the latte like a crown. My various orders are carved into my brain: Nutty Caramel Latte with almond milk and an extra shot of espresso for when my mantra is “treat yo’self,” a pour-over coffee when I’ve got a story twitching in my fingertips, a cappuccino for conversation and never, under any circumstance, an artisanal tea.

It’s a Saturday in March. I’ve got lines and characters and plots waltzing from right to left in my brain. I email my fiction professor a fervent request that he meet me later to discuss my story. I make a beeline for the perfect coffeehouse. The sky is grey with spring cold and as my boots scuff across the cobbled streets of Iowa City, I imagine myself a female Ben Franklin, coat billowing, spectacles slipping, rushing off to a Club of Honest Whigs meeting at the London Coffeehouse. The soft bounce of my laptop against my back draws me out of my reverie.

At 7:04 a.m. the perfect coffeehouse still rubbing the sleep from its eyes. The barista’s smile is soft as she maneuvers around the pour-over coffee bar to pour steaming water over the fresh grounds. I watch the water sieve through the filter and into the perfect coffeehouse’s iconic cups. As the drops accumulate, I ponder (as I am prone to d0) the implications of my desire for this particular space and for this particular drink in the context of my creativity.

At this point, it is pertinent that I disclose that the perfect coffeehouse (Iowa City’s beloved Java House) is the brainchild of Tara Cronbaugh, a former University of Iowa student, who discovered her passion for coffeehouse ambience while visiting her brother at the University of California Berkeley in 1990. Tara was fascinated by the unique combination of “social and relaxing” vibes that were exuded by the locally owned coffee establishments they visited. Most importantly, she unearthed a key tenant of the coffeehouse success algorithm: it wasn’t about the coffee served but rather the entire experience that the coffeehouse could provide.

You see, it wasn’t coffee (although it is delectable in every sense of the word) that garnered my loyalty to the perfect coffeehouse. Out of Iowa City’s 45 other coffeehouses (41% of which belong to corporations including Starbucks, Caribou Coffee and Dunkin Donuts), it was the story that Tara crafted and told me that I fell in love with. The perfect coffeehouse became an emblem of the narrative that I constructed for myself: it was well-loved and slightly weathered like the Velveteen Rabbit, it was occupied chiefly by hipsters and other messy minds and my very presence in it, solidified my membership in the society of intelligent, stylish and undoubtedly witty coffee-aficionados. The perfect coffeehouse was a place where I could linger, a place where I could whip out my scribble-marred, tattered Moleskine with pride.

No! Precious beads of pour-over coffee slide over the sides of the cup in nearly translucent, pale brown rivulets. I snatch the cup deftly up, ignoring the burn of hot liquid against my bare hands. The barista offers me a napkin. I decline and rush off to my favorite alcove near the window. I look out as my coffee breathes; the small city is beginning to stir and stretch last night’s stiffness from its sinews. Patrons are beginning to harken to the perfect coffeehouse; its siren song calls their decaffeinated brains and their aesthetic-loving hearts. The door of perfect coffeehouse functions like the hands of a clock: the mornings fly swiftly by as the rush quickens, the afternoons lounge about in one long, quiet dwindle and the evenings are punctuated by the soothing entrance of a twilight breeze. I wish I could set my watch to it.

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(a rare sighting of my one true love: the infamous, sensual and delightful Nutty Caramel Latte.)

This is the moment my four semesters of Italian prepared me for. The perfect coffeehouse encourages la dolce far niente or the sweetness of doing nothing, of time devoted to interest and rumination rather than obligation. Even its name, “The Java House,” implies that there is no need for hustled orders or quickly crafted drinks. Although you can certainly order your coffee to go, there is something so decadent about immersing yourself in the perfect coffeehouse’s humming and carefully crafted atmosphere. As the gold light of morning pouring through its rectangular windows, my coffee has finally achieved drinkable status; its temperature falls somewhere between scalding and warm. My olfactory organs inhale the darkness of the roast. I open my laptop and begin to unfurl my tangled ball of ideas.

If I were to draw up an algorithm of Tara Cronbaugh ‘s The Java House it would be divided into three equal parts and their caffeinated brews wouldn’t factor in. What it does so damnably well, what makes it worthy of the moniker “the perfect coffeehouse” is its trifecta of experience: it offers a creative space, it tells a good story and it provides customers with the chance to do nothing, should they so choose to indugle. Which is why many of the Iowa City’s residents, especially its large student and writer population, prefer this local shop to the more widely known java joints such as Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks, the latter of which sports multiple locations within the city limits.

When questioned about the difference between large coffee chains and the perfect coffeehouse, a fellow coffee-enthusiast stated, “When I’m in a hurry, Starbucks is my jam but when I want to take my time, accomplish something or impress a girl, I always come here [Java House] because it’s got personality.” He lifted his thick brown brows at me and leaned in as a gesture of confidence, “Well, and the barista’s actually give a shit about what they make here.”

With that, he toasted his macchiato towards me. I raised my Nutty Caramel Latte in solidarity, its tessellated milk foam dancing. Yes, the perfect coffeehouse is detailed and careful, presenting each cup o’joe as if it were a piece of art. We are simultaneously soothing our coffee-addled brains and dropping clues about our world-view. We are paying homage to the scholars of the Age of Enlightenment, gatherings to discuss our interests and passions over cups of coffee. The perfect coffeehouse says something about who we are. We are social, intellectual and we can properly pronounce “espresso.” As patrons, we tell its story to others out of love and admiration for its authenticity, and it in turn, reinforces the narrative we tell ourselves about ourselves.

There are over 500 art galleries in New York City. There are 83 museums across the five boroughs. Universities with storied creative programs such as Columbia, The New School, The Juilliard School and NYU. People move to New York City for the story. They move to New York City because that is just what creative people do, because that is just where creative people are. With all of its culture and contrasts, it promises adventure and romance and conflict and explosions of creativity. It lets us “lie” to ourselves in just the same way that the perfect coffeehouse does: we consume their stories and then adopt them as compliments to our own narratives.

New York City boats over 1,700 coffeehouses. Of that number, 57% are single-location or small chain spots. The remaining 43% are made up of the popular chain coffee retailers, Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks. In contrast, Iowa City is home to only 45 coffeehouses. Of that number, 75.5% are single location or small chain spots, which leaves less than 25% to large coffee retailers.

In the January/ February issue of Communication Arts (Typography 6), Monica Kass Rogers’ article “A Beautiful Mess” excavates the ever-changing realm of food photography. In accordance with today’s “looser, messier, more idiosyncratic” food styling, she writes that “ [food] is not as limited by the boundaries of the plate so that they may tell bigger food stories: where it’s from, what it is, why it matters. Food has become the window into lifestyle stories.”

I vehemently agree with Monica’s assessment. There are no small stories in this world. Even within the coffeehouse industry. Sure, the large corporate coffee conglomerates have a grip on a vast majority of the population but if you take the perfect coffeehouse’s story as a model, there is a vital message: you don’t have to convince everyone that your story is important, you only have to convince those who share your worldview that your story is authentic. Each cup, each visit, each exchange with a knowledgeable barista functions as one brushstroke on the larger canvas of the story. Consequently, the experience of the perfect coffeehouse is allowed to transcend the boundaries of consumerism and become a part of the consumer’s narrative about their chosen lifestyle.

As the United States only UNESCO City of Literature and the birthplace of the illustrious, historical and extremely exclusive MFA program The Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Iowa City is something of a Midwest bohemia. With its cobbled streets, its boutique businesses, its vintage sport culture, its sweater-clad trees and local restaurants, it tells the same myth that the perfect coffeehouse does. As with the most powerful tales of our age, the medium becomes the message. The perfect coffeehouse tells me a story of a girl with a story twitching in her fingertips, waiting to be unleashed. It’s a story I can imagine and plot and fill with characters and mess up and revise. It’s stronger than the notes of my freshly-poured French roast. It warms the palms of my hands. My fiction professor scurries through the door. His red scarf is obscuring his mouth. His blue eyes stop on an unoccupied barista.

“Story can wait,” he mumbles in lieu of a greeting, “Coffee first.”

So as your sip your morning brew and savor your Tuesday, please consider this week’s (whit)ticisms:

  1. The Internet is a wonderful realm that allows us to access material and inspiration from sources produced hundreds of years ago. This enables an artist to create work that has a past but feels absolutely present. Steal like an artist this week and write a riff on a classic story (something that relies on money, a miracle, ego, fun, safety, pleasure, belonging ect.).
  2. Treat yo’self. Devour that giant cinnamon roll. Chug that spiked milkshake. No seriously, do it. Trust me, I’m three quarters away from my second Hurts donut as I write this.
  3. Be aware of the fact that every choice, every word and every action constructs your personal narrative. The average human lifespan is 71 years. Due to the brevity of existence, there are no small moments. Remember Monet’s dappled brushstrokes? He applied paint in small strokes that ultimately built up into broad fields of color. It was a laborious process but look at the beauty that came from it.
  4. Watch this short video about the “Vagabond Barista” and how he fused his personal journey with coffee in order to tell and share an authentic narrative to others:

may your love & your coffee be strong,

– whit

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creative catalysts:tread lightly & look up

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The summer after my freshman year in college, I emerged from Iowa and embarked immediately, along with the other Repole women, for the world’s epicenter of culture, Paris. A lifetime fan of that ill-fated Queen of France, Marie Antoinette (to my impressionable mind, there was something so glamorous about “Let them eat cake”), I found myself inside the halls of Versailles, unable to see around the crowd of other humans with selfie-sticks and fanny packs. So I looked up. As a result my iPhone is littered with photographs of the ornate ceilings and chandeliers of Versailles. In hindsight, my actions merit analysis: why did I look up? The easy answer is a romantic one. Laden with paintings by Le Brun and François Lemoyne, the ceilings of Versailles are undeniable works of art. Furthermore, they were unclouded. They were pure in a way that the chateau could never be due to the clutter of tourism. They were the only view that Marie herself would have seen, un-trespassed by the modern world and its inhabitants.

One year later, I was sitting cross-legged in a mountainside cave far past the city limits of Fes, Morocco. Perhaps, it was the water dripping down from tiny stalactites on the ceiling’s underbelly or the hunched stature of the Berber woman or the mint tea that steamed hot between my palms or the meticulously woven “blood carpets” beneath the soles of my dust-crusted sandals but everything was imbued with magic. It was one of those experiences fiction writers day-dream of whilst burrowed up in their studio (and later, when our translator informed me that the Berber woman had offered my mother 3 camels, 4 goats, a llama and a vehement promise not to meddle in exchange for my hand in marriage to her eldest son, I muttered a series of hushed expletives for not having the sagacity to bring my notebook with me).

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Now think of your brain as an elaborate mosaic. Our experiences, the foods we eat, the people we love and hate, the music we listen to, the places we travel to, all become tesserae (one piece of a mosaic). Here is the point of what I am trying to tell you: everything is significant. From the Berber woman’s humble cave to Marie Antoinette’s gorgeously gaudy Versailles, I found myself in an age of living symbols all of which are colored by my perception of them and all of which, I am susceptible to. The historical and fictional connotations of both places influenced the narrative pieces that I used (and now use) to convey my experience.

Which led me to believe that these places, and in fact all things in life, can act as living brands or symbols of living truths. As the “Sun King,” around which the world revolved, King Louis XIV, wanted Versailles to dazzle and inspire envy in all who entered through its Baroque façade. Through a series of renovations, he transformed the Chateau into a symbol of his reign’s power and grandeur. Even today, hundreds of years after he strutted (they were all peacocks, back then) through its mirrored hall, it remains irrevocably tied to the narrative produced by its past author.

It is impossible to separate our stories from their historical roots or from their modern context. We are tethered to both and they pull us in opposite directions. However, in his book, Choose Yourself, James Altucher, American hedge fund manager, entrepreneur, bestselling author, podcaster and brainchild behind more than 20 companies, muses on the importance of being familiar with the past in order to create for the future, “Study every nuance…not only all of your contemporaries, but the influences of those contemporaries…the facets that resonate with time, even if it’s hundreds of years old will resonate with your work…it’s like the law of the universe.”

Similar thoughts are expressed in the March/ April 2015 issue of Communication Arts: “Designers must determine what’s significant, and then display essential information only.” As human beings in today’s highly visual world, we are constantly endeavoring to do this very thing with our bodies and the “origin stories” we create (and attempt to “sell” to others) as the mediums. We are a jumble of inheritances and potentials. It is our duty to determine what is valuable in ourselves and from there we have a responsibility to share what shines within us, to fuse our narratives, histories and contexts.

For six years, I’ve been regurgitating my “origin story” in response to the question, “Why Iowa?” I’d give an answer something like, “I’m a writer so I wanted to come to the only U.S. City of Literature, get into a Fiction MFA program and write the next great American novel and then live happily ever after.” However, as four of five rejection letters from various touted MFA programs have slowly drifted into my mailbox, I’ve had to reconsider my story. Perhaps, at twenty-two years old I haven’t lived enough or perhaps I haven’t read enough or perhaps (there are million other hypotheticals, I could launch into but alas, I will spare you).

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To be frank, I’ve had to revaluate what the mosaic of my tesserae would look like. Would the 80 pages that composed my two short stories withstand the test of time and still resonate with an essential truth like King Louis’ Versailles? As a writer and as I person, was I as authentically branded as the Berber woman and her cave? If I were a designer looking at the layout of my life, what would I choose to keep? What would I regard as essential?

Thusly without any further rambling, I cordially invite you to consider this week’s (whit)ticisms.

  1. Don’t write the story you set out to write. Allow your characters to go rogue and get lost in a new land full of possibility, danger and wrong choices. Stories and people are the most interesting when problematic. Let them be human.
  2. Along the same vein, draw a plot-map of your life & then promptly tear it up. Planning is inevitable but also futile. As one of the wisest (and inherently problematic!) characters who ever graced a page once said, “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”
  3. Imagine you are creating the mosaic of your life through each choice made, word spoken, compliment given, laugh uttered, book read, album listened to. Remember that you alone are the artist. It doesn’t have to be beautiful to anyone but you.
  4. Be courageous in the face of life’s uncertainties. We are not meant to be simple creatures with simple, pretty, neat lives. Give yourself the freedom to grow new roots, to sow new dreams. If you focus on the journey of your story, instead of the outcome, fulfillment will be as simple as turning on a light.

creative catalysts: spray on, players.

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Deep in the labyrinth of Amsterdam’s cobbled, graffiti laden streets, I stumbled upon a seemingly out of place, life-size black and white rendering of Albert Einstein surrounded by a ring of bright, Dutch-tulip orange. I recognized the artist’s work immediately: it was a Bansky. I attempted to explain to my mother and sister (both of whom were more interested in locating the Anne Frank House than listening to my joy- induced babble). You see part of the marvel in seeing a Banksy is that since they are technically “graffiti,” many only exist in memory or in photograph and most get either whitewashed over or destroyed.

If you’re born with a healthy level of skepticism, you’re probably thinking: “How could she possibly be familiar with the varying graffiti styles of the world?”

In Art & Designs’ article exploring possible identity of the infamously subversive and secretive British street-artist, Dr. Steven Le Comber appropriately articulated the cultural phenomena that the artist represents: “When you think graffiti, you think Banksy.”

Here is another way to frame my encounter with Banksy in Amsterdam: “How in the hell did an artist become world-renowned, so fiercely loved, for something so counter-culture, something illegal? And what about his art attracts the attention from the general, non-art savvy populous (for example, a girl from the Texas Hill Country)?

Banksy’s following is captivated by his ability to produce images that complicate or contradict their implied text or more simply, their geographical context (take for instance, his murals along Israel’s West Bank wall, which is meant to discourage suicide bombers, depicting two children with bucket and spade fantasizing of a picturesque beach).

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If you haven’t guessed by now, I am unabashedly one of those graffiti enthusiasts. To me, there’s something incredibly human about Banksy’s perfectly executed vandalism. It speaks to the great endeavor (and great failure) of humanity: to exist as a perfect voyeur in the best sense of the word, simultaneously seeing and preserving every moment. As we pass through life, we perceive every experience in a way that is unique to us alone. Our memories are singular; we only have what we remember.

I like that his art makes my brain work harder. I like that it makes me question my original perception. I like that it implies the existence of another story beneath the surface. I suppose that’s where it’s true charm lies: it merits a second glance. With its penchant for irony, its innate controversy and its social commentary, his art demands to be felt, experienced, questioned and talked about. In short, Banksy’s art accomplishes the goal of every ad campaign.

Although nothing could be topically farther from the power of street-art, MLB Spring Training is upon us and I’m reminded of an example of a meticulously executed, visually poignant and contextually rich campaign that relies on contrasts between perception and reality: Gatorade’s “Made in New York.” With Sinatra’s resilient “My Way” as the backdrop the commercial follows Yankee legend Derek Jeter as he declines a chauffeured ride to stroll through the streets of the Bronx and interact with the city he has become an emblem for. Metaphorically humbled, the Captain holds conversation with a fan in front of a garage door spray-painted with his likeness. There is poetry in this: both in the storybook hero brought to fruition and the reduction of self, the absorption of an extraordinary man into the ordinary mass.

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With this smattering of diverse information in mind, I ask you to consider this week’s three (whit)ticisms:

1) Take five minutes every day to wonder about something that you would normally ignore. Walk to class or to the coffee shop down the street. You’ll notice all sorts of anomalies, oddities and treasures (graffiti!) that can’t be seen from a car

2) Question the boundaries of your own perception. Go out of your house. Go funning, go wild. Get a blanket, spread it in the grass and look up. A simple change of landscape will wreak havoc upon your brain. Trust me, it’s a good thing.

3) Explore the things that puzzle, confound or frustrate you and create something out of that energy. It doesn’t have to be understood, it just needs to make you feel something.

p.s. Dear Banksy, if by some fantastic cosmic accident you’re reading this: SPRAY ON MY FRIEND, SPRAY ON.

hello, it’s me.

hi y’all. cozy up & stay a while.

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My name is Whitney Repole (dubbed “Whit”) and I’m a former student-athlete at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, IA, where I received a Bachelor of Arts in English and Creative Writing in May. Blame it all on my roots but I am enthusiastic about the following: traveling/ exploration, breakfast food (especially that delectably unrefined Tex-Mex achievement the breakfast taco), the darkest of coffees and chocolates, social media, Harry Potter (for posterity, Sirius and the Weasley twins are my favorites), typography, photography, any and all types of fiction and poetry, giant dogs (like my beloved, slightly overweight golden retriever, Tucker Jackson) and cooking, or more accurately, culinary experimentation.

Anyways.

If I were the pretentious sort of lass, I would spout lofty aspirations about this project that sound something like this: “The goal of this blog is to provide the opportunity for you to transcend the boundaries of human limitation and experience.”

An important distinction: my goal is to help you see the world differently, to turn it inside out and upside down through a combination of prose & photographs. As a human being who is tremendously interested in experiencing the entire breadth of my one wild and precious life, I am constantly drawn to the fragility and capability of perception. And despite my slight, secret hope for reincarnation, for another chance at living, I am aware that such dreams are unstable and most likely the stuff of fiction.

Which brings me to the purpose that forms the core of my blog and Instagram. As a creative in today’s hyper-Web world, I aspire to share my human experience and creative process with you through a combination of two artistic mediums. The mission of whittywords is to fuse precise, original, lively prose with photographs I’ve taken throughout my travels abroad and daily treks around Iowa City.

Many people champion the “unplugged” way of life as the only plausible route to truly living. Respectfully, I have to disagree. One of the greatest capacities of the Internet is its ability to connect, inspire and produce ideas. This trifecta of creative potential and productivity is something that I sincerely believe in and ascribe to.

AND THUSLY, ON A NORMAL DAY IN LATE JANUARY, I SAID LET THERE BE WHITTYWORDS & (WHIT)TICISMS FOR EVERYONE!