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Ben and His Failures
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May 1, 1998; column
If you had a burden of worth, a sad story, wouldn't you like to get rid of it?

Here's a true story about Ben, a hard core workout fanatic.

Ben joined my local gym last year. He's twenty-something, broad-shouldered, wears flappy Reebok shorts, and fingers his oversized sports watch all the time. From this, I gather he's a single man.

He stands about 5'2", hardly a Hulk, but is a man of such great discipline that a day of couching is akin to being fried in hot oil. A day without weights is like a day given to satanic worship.

I believe Ben is Chinese, although I never asked. The only reason I could ever doubt his lineage is because of the way he talks. He spraffs like a machine gun.

Every evening at seven on the dot, he'd pop around to the gym for a three-hour marathon workout. First of all, this fetish with punctuality would display itself every evening for the every evening that I go there - which is quite often since I'm obsessed with deltoids and glutes - and second, he'd be pumping iron until everybody else had given up and gone home.

By now you've probably worked out the idea of some stunted, sweaty fellow with a big mouth, but for all his lack of genetic luck, Ben makes up for it with a towering personality.

Like any person trying to lose weight, Ben loves to talk about his conversion to health foods. He rewards logical, intelligent feedback. He gives tips, cooking tips, to people like me, who look like they forgot to leave the house behind. He's generous with 'short-cuts' - how to cut down on time doing cardio, complete 12 reps on the bilat machine without breaking, use clever posturing to gain inches in height - and I love him for putting up with the bother.

He saw the world differently. As an obese man who grew up with a serious health problem, he didn't love himself that much, but he loved the idea of beating the problem, and he was taken to the idea of other people beating the problem with him.

Then one day, one simple ordinary day, with the same unremitting routine, the same flack from mad drivers, the same boringly perfect gym-goers, the same ordinary day, Ben did not turn up.

Which shouldn't be a big deal, as he's a grown-up and can very well take care of himself. But as the regulars went through their paces, we noticed how we avoided the bilats, to which Ben would attach himself from 7.30 to 8.00pm. And how we avoided using locker no. 9, which was 'his' locker. Worse still, how we kept glancing at the clock. Where was this guy? Did his cholesterol count hit Jupiter? I imagined him sprawled on the bathroom floor, comatose, turning blue, rotting.

As a matter of fact, we never saw jolly old Ben again. He never came back.

For all his imperfections - he talked too much, and never seemed to lose any weight - Ben was our hold on reality. The nasty thing was, some of us actually took to comparing our results with his, glorifying over the fact, that even at individualistic gym workouts, someone could win over someone else. While we succeeded, Ben kept toiling, and toiling.

In the end, I found out what happened. No, it wasn't an accident. No, he didn't die. No, he didn't get married. Ben gave up. And it hurt me to find out over the phone sometime later, when he said that everything in gym, people included, were boring. He just gave up losing weight, without a proper, solid reason, except to say he was bored to tears.

It's very hard for me to say this, but as someone wisely put it, "only boring people ever get bored". And I do wish Ben would try again.

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