Can I turn "Can't" into Beauty?

Thursday, March 29, 2007

I was thinking about Al Tozer yesterday...I'm not sure what prompted the thoughts. Al is a building designer here in town. He's a gentle, soft spoken man with a deeply thoughtful manner and a quick, genuine smile...and he's a really good designer. I always enjoyed sitting across the desk from him, and I remember asking him once about his education. It turned out his degree had nothing to do with design...not directly. He studied some sort of microbiology thing. I laughed, because I always think it's sort of sad/funny to see how unused so many degrees go. But he said his degree was actually quite applicable to the work he does now...something about how it causes him to approach his design with an awareness of systems and mircrosystems and what promotes healthy living...or something. It was a good point. And in thinking back, I actually can see how he applies it. That's cool

But that's not what made me think about him. We were introduced to Al when Dad and I acquired a piece of property in the historic district on Colorado Street. It was a great little lot...and I do mean little. 40'x100', I think. It had actually been the side yard to a classic bungalow that was now being restored and upgraded. It was hard to picture it being home to anything larger than the little grape hyacinths and tulips that still grew around the scattered bricks that had once formed borders and paths. But as any development goes, this lot had to turn a profit and so the tulips would soon give way to a commercial and residential mixed-use building. That's where Al came in. He was to design us a beautiful building that could house some sort of commercial use on the bottom...we didn't know...offices, store, deli, flower shop, coffee shop...any number of possibilities, and residential space on top. If that weren't challenging enough, it had to pass the architectural review of the National Historic Registry while it met all the new construction parameters that change a buildings appearance like fire and ADA codes. The enormous elm out front was "historic" and had to stay and the power lines outback were "grandfathered" and had to be avoided. Every time we gave Al one more limitation his design got better; that wall can't have codes, that space can't be that increases our parking requirements, that brick can't be used there...we need self contained drainage systems. Seriously, every time we said, "we can't", Al was able to somehow change his design to not only accomodate the "can'ts" but to make the building more beautiful and useful all at once. I remember so clearly the day we got our final permits and approvals. I went and bought Al a box of giant cookies from Great Harvest and sent them with a thank you note. He had pulled off what should have been an impossible, discouraging feat, and I remember laughing in awe at the approvals I held in my hand.

That's why I was thinking about him yesterday. I don't remember ever hearing Al complain about the limitations everyone was putting on him. I think, in fact, maybe he thrived on them. I need to find a way to be that person. I am looking around at so many shattered dreams, so many "can'ts". They are there, the fire codes and historic regulations and city codes. The reality is that half of them are nothing more than someone else's idea of how things ought to be and those only based on biases and opinions, not on truth. The other half are truths that cramp and clip like the truth that there is a useable backseat in a Volkswagen Bug...really? You can advertise that as a seat?

It doesn't matter why my limitations are there. They just are. There were times when we wondered if it wouldn't be smarter to just sell that little lot and let someone else figure out how to build on was a crazy task. But Al was never daunted. He turned his "can'ts" into beauty. He really did. Our list of "can'ts" that threatened and taunted us every day for a year is now the pretty blue and cream building on Colorado. It sold to a family that runs a personal training gym downstairs and lives in the sunny, luxurious aparments upstairs. What a fun dichotomy of modern day and old fashioned lifestyles for a building that had to balance the historic and modern in order to exist, huh?

My "can'ts" have to change me. I don't have a choice about that. Many times I want to answer them with bitterness. But today I want to be like Al Tozer and turn Can't into beauty instead.