Space For Rent
Saturday, January 23, 2016, Magh 10, 1422 BS, Rabius Sani 11, 1437 Hijri


Where fountains flowed and creativity flourished once
Tapan Chakrabarty
Published :Saturday, 23 January, 2016,  Time : 12:00 AM  View Count : 316
It was 4 am on a weekday. Calgary, Canada, a city of more than a million, was still four and a half hour away from a January sunrise. Crowchild Trail North, one of the major motorways through the city, was already awakened by lights beaming and sounds emanating from a machine made in Munich, Germany, and driven by a 'bimmer' born and raised in subtropical rural Matlab, Bangladesh (BD). The 'ultimate driving machine' slithered sporadically, after hitting patches of 'black (transparent) ice'. The ground all around was frozen solid. I parked and got out in a hurry. Struck by a -30?C wind chill, my upper and lower eyelids got momentarily stuck together, as I was struggling from the parking lot to a portico of a four-story white edifice, which had won the 1989 most beautiful office building award in Canada. Inside, I was greeted by a two-story-high sculpture of rock formations and two delicately balanced rings, representing petroleum production responsibly by balancing environment and revenue, through research and development. The reception area was welcoming and warm, as always. It felt as though I walked from Antarctica to South America, in less than four minutes.
To be at office that early, at least one of the following factors had to be in play: being at the place of work was more enticing than dawdling over disconnected thoughts in bed; excitement of working on a new idea in the early morning solitude; a planned morning work-out at the nearby University of Calgary (UC) gym.
That morning, I started warming up on the first floor of the four-story atrium. Sounds of vertical streams splashing onto flowing water of fountains softened my solicitude. Live trees and plants, lit by accent lights, created a warm subtropical feel. 'Better here than in bed,' I thought feeling sprightly. The sounds and the sights and the exercise-released natural stimulant instilled in me a feeling of 'intellectual romance', which sometimes acts as a prelude to gaining a new insight or making an invention. The embroidered unicorn on my Boston Marathon running hat felt as if it had moved a little, aroused by the jauntiness of the environment around. I raised, rather reflexively, my right arm to adjust it. 'Ouch!' The pain was too much to tolerate. It was as if I fell from heaven to hell, in one moment.
'You've a frozen right shoulder, Tapan!' Dave Lindsey, a UC physiotherapist, who works with Canadian Olympic athletes, had declared a few days earlier. 'Frozen like the ground outside!' I interjected in an attempt to make light of the diagnosis by Dave, originally from subtropical Durban, Australia. I was mindful of a colleague's torn shoulder ligament that was beyond repair. Nothing was torn in mine. It just lost upward mobility due to stiffness, caused by muscle imbalance from repetitive horizontal seesaw movement of my arms during running, with no balancing vertical movements. Muscles, like everything in life and nature, need to be in balance. Dave prescribed me a few stretches and a pulley.
Back to my room from the atrium, I secured the pulley on top of the door by shutting it tight. From inside, sitting on a chair, I started pulling down the handle at one end of the chord with my left hand, while letting the other end, held in my right hand, rise as far straight up as it could go, without crossing my pain threshold. One arm down, the other arm up --- I found my rhythm without pain. Gaining in decibels with each cycle, the periodic squeaks were becoming worrisome. But I continued. 'Who'd be here at this time, anyway?' Pleased with the work-out and with no one complaining, I opened the door to celebrate the small success with a drink of water. The silhouette of a figure, standing against the kitchen light, sparked fear of a spectre, a fear that was ingrained in me since childhood days in BD villages.
'What's that noise?' the figure asked without turning back. He knew who I was. From his voice, I knew who he was. The VP of research! The last person I would have liked to face in that situation. 'Working on my frozen shoulder,' replied I, being concise and hoping that those words might strike a chord with him. A few weeks earlier, in a department safety meeting focussing on off-the-job incidents, he had shared his own 'shoulder injury from golf'. The VP turned and glanced at the chord of the pulley in my hand and walked away with a coffee mug in his hand.
Light jogging and pulley pulling are not the only low-impact exercises I do in my office. I use a light-weight dumbbell to balance my shoulder muscles, and to reduce the risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome --- numbness and tingling in arm and hand caused by pinching of a nerve residing in the tunnel of a wrist. I also move back and forth on an L-shaped, 4m x 3m area on the floor around the desk. When the weather is harsh outside, I improvise inside.
A kitchen with a fridge and a microwave oven just outside the office allows me to eat throughout the day. I split and eat my lunch such that my blood glucose level remains relatively low. After each carbohydrate-rich meal, I go for a mild exercise inside my room or outside to suppress the resulting glucose spike.
The office is also a source of psychological boost in times of despair. Patent plaques on two walls encourage me to continue working on a new idea even when it feels like I have reached a dead end. The photos of Antarctica, Mount Everest, Inca Trail, and Big Five marathons; the Paris Marathon painting by Paris-resident Bangladeshi artist Shahabuddin, capturing me on a canvas while running on the Champs Elysees; the Boston Marathon painting capturing the 2011 moment at the finish line on the Boylston Street; the Inca Trail Marathon painting showing me at the end of the trail overlooking the Machhu Picchu ruins in Peru --- all inspire through rough patches.
While working, I change the venue once in a while. I walk to a large white board on a wall in the hallway, and write down the disconnected thoughts, in the hope of making an 'aha connection' or solving a vexing technical problem. I also take frequent breaks.
Taking breaks and changing the venue are something I have been doing since I was at Matlab High School. Encouraged by its way-ahead-of-his-time headmaster, the late Waliullah Patwari, I practiced those while preparing for important exams. I sometimes studied at night or in the weekend in a school classroom, five minutes' walk from home. Inspired by the mischievous but playful monkeys on the mango and guava trees in our Matlab village yard, I developed a reputation of climbing up trees to study --- an oddity still remembered fondly by some villagers. My favourite spot was the roof of our ancestral house in Bishnupur village. I used to climb up a jhamrul fruit tree, whose leafy branches, hugging the sloping corrugated tin roof, guarded me from the scalding sun above and from sliding down to the ground below. The breeze and the momentary mosaic of lights and shades and the solitude up there helped me comprehend complex concepts in science texts, and retain facts and figures of social studies. Environment plays such a crucial role in creative pursuits. Sound of waves lapping up against a house boat on the River Padma by Shelaidah, BD, inspired Tagore to create some of his great literary works, including English translation of the poems in Gitanjali, which won him the Nobel Prize.
All the offices in the research building were traditional, with walls and doors and privacy to even set up a pulley for a frozen shoulder. Over the past several decades, however, there had been a shift away from traditional to open-floor-plan offices. The shortcomings of these offices have received rather harsh rebukes from several magazines of high repute. 'Murderous for any job that requires creativity or concentration,' wrote Fortune (18 March 2015). 'Workers in open-office settings experience more uncontrolled disruptions, higher amounts of stress, and lower levels of concentration and motivation than those in standard offices,' wrote Forbes (31 March 2015).
Despite those criticisms, lower cost and greater flexibility to handle changes in staff number will continue to increase the percentage, already at 70 per cent in US, of open-floor offices. Be that as it may, the facility where I work has been great for doing research. It was designed to foster creativity and collaboration in a stress-free environment: away from downtown, in the quiet university research park; the four-story grand atrium separating the offices on the north from the labs on the south to improve air quality; two four-story glass windows, one on the east and the other on the west end of the glass-roofed atrium, all bringing in natural light; three fountains, and several large, leafy, live trees, and plants adding music to and adorning the atrium; and a fitness centre with lockers and showers for employees to rejuvenate their minds and bodies. The success of the facility is reflected in its being recognized as 'the centre of excellence' in heavy oil research for the multinational oil company, as well as in its 'wall of fame', displaying a plethora of patent achievements, external recognitions, and the most significant innovations.
Sadly, some of the salient features of the research facility had vanished, after a change of ownership, years ago. Once owner and occupant of the entire building, the research department became a minority tenant in a multi-tenant research facility. The fitness centre, where I trained for my first marathon, had been converted to offices. More offices, a meeting room, and a box-look-alike small library had been added to the east atrium, on our side of the building.
The fountains had stopped flowing and making music. And the ideas had stopped sprouting. These days in 2016, the east atrium air is humming a melancholy tune of au revoir to its first owner and occupant since 1989. After all, everything in life, like life itself, is ephemeral.
Tapan Chakrabarty --- a BUET chemical engineer with a PhD from University of Waterloo, a seven-continent marathon finisher, an inventor and an innovator --- writes from Calgary, Canada









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