Saturday, April 6, 2019

The Causes of Failure, Part One - John McCallum

In a run-down section of the eastern border of the city there was, at one time, a small dusty area known rather generously as a children's playground. The playground, such as it was, lay three blocks from the harbor, slightly west of the Paine and McInley Equipment Company  and directly downwind from the Western Transport Loading Dock #4, from which an endless stream of beef hides, nitrate fertilizers, bulk sulfur, and other odious commodities were dispatched to the outside world. On the other side of the harbor, a mile or so away, the oil refinery spilled its allotted quota into the water, sent up roaring flames from its exhaust stacks, and, when the humidity was just right, added its discouraging contribution to the already burdened atmosphere. 

The playground was bounded on one side by two square miles of combined freight yard and pool car assembly area. Two other sides consisted of shunting tracks and storage warehouses. The remaining side hosted a row of crumbling tenements and Fire Station #3.

The playground, itself, was a pitiful sight. Ten years previous, in a flush of philanthropic fervor, a local service club has installed the customary selection of swings, teeter-totters, chinning bars, and so on. Time, however, had made heavy inroads. The metal posts and bars were streaked with rust. The teeter-totter board and the seat of the one remaining swing were cracked and split and jagged with three-inch splinters. The flying rings had long since flown, and the ground, since no grass was ever planted, ranged from two inches of dust in the dry season to a field of mud when it rained. 

From early morning until well after dark, the playground was jammed with kids of all ages. Their presence was not, as you might suppose, a tribute to the playground. They had simply no other place to go. And, since the playground was not supervised, the children were left to their own amusement which over the years settled into a fairly steady and predictable pattern.

The little ones - pre-teen - ran around and got dirty and screamed and fought over the equipment. The older girls clustered in little groups and giggled a lot and pretended not to look at the boys showing off on the horizontal bar. The older boys pretended not to look at the girls.

Larry French was a dark-haired, wiry young lad who was born and raised two blocks from the playground. Larry worried a lot, and he slid into his teens with a growing concern regarding his lack of financial solvency.

When he was fifteen, Larry attempted a giant swing and cutaway on the high-bar in an effort to impress a certain Susy Beckett, a young lady of precocious and imposing development. Larry's hand slipped on the second revolution. He landed upside down and broke his left arm. Miss Beckett snickered audibly and strolled away with another boy who had blonde curly hair and more sense than to get up on a high-bar in the first place. By the time Larry's arm was out of the cast he had developed an acute sense of skepticism towards the fair sex.

When he was sixteen, Larry had a fist fight with a new boy in the neighborhood - a tall, bony lad with dark little eyes and a pimply complexion. The new boy's stock in trade was the left jab. The punch, delivered with astonishing precision reduced Larry to ruin in something under five minutes.

Fights were common in the neighborhood, and Larry, being gifted with a better than average mind, decided to acquire a slight edge over the opposition. He weighed the relative merits of the switchblade and the wool sock full of sand and wisely discarded both as being just slightly more lethal than the circumstances warranted.

Larry considered all the angles and decided that muscles, being inexpensive, relatively inconspicuous, and perfectly legal, were the solution to his problem. His visits to the playground became regular and purposeful.

The only equipment in the playground adaptable to formal exercise was the horizontal bar, the parallel bars, and the teeter-totter. Larry did chins on the horizontal bar. He did them front grip, reverse grip, wide grip, and narrow grip. He did them to his chin and he did them to the back of his neck. He did set after endless set and, slowly but surely, his biceps and forearms grew hard and muscular and his lats took on a different shape.

Larry did dips on the parallel bars with the same fervor. He did numerous sets and he squeezed the maximum number of repetitions out of each of them. Larry's triceps got strong and defined and his pecs began to grow.

When he finished his chins and dips, Larry went to the teeter-totter and did sit-ups on it. And while the practice generated a certain amount of friction between himself and the little kids who happened to be using it at the time, the equipment, itself, served admirably. Larry would lay on the board, head down, hook his toes under the central bar, and do sit-ups until his stomach screamed. He performed the sit-ups as faithfully as the chins and dips.

When Larry turned eighteen, he moved to the other side of the city and got a job. But he'd been bitten by the muscle bug pretty hard and he missed his old exercise sessions in the playground. He did push-ups and sit-ups in his bedroom for a while, got bored with that, and finally enrolled in a small commercial gym.

Weight training and Larry got along well together. He asked a lot of questions of the owner, and got a great deal of advice. He ignored most of it, but made good progress anyway. He had a good foundation from his workouts at the playground, and the equipment in the gym let him expand his program enormously. He did squats and cleans and curls and so on. He worked on the benches and the pulleys and anything else that was available and gradually added muscle.

Larry made good progress for a while. He wasn't bulky, but his muscles were shapely and well defined. His progress, however, eventually came to a halt. Larry trained hard for three more months with practically no results. Finally, in desperation, he went in to see the gym owner.

The owner was tilted back in his chair with his feet up on the desk and an open can of protein tablets in his left hand. He fished out a tablet with his right hand, flipped it into the air, moved his head slightly, and caught the tablet in his mouth. He tried it again. The tablet landed on his throat and slid down inside his shirt.

"That's a kinda messy way of eating them, ain't it?" Larry asked.

"Could be worse," the gym owner said. "Imagine if it was Energol." He took his feet off the desk and sat up straight.

"I need help," Larry told him.

"My boy," the gym owner beamed. "You've come to the right man. As long as it doesn't involve work or money, I'll be delighted to assist you. What would you like?"

"It's my training," Larry said. "I ain't making no progress."

"Right," the gym owner said. "I know."

Larry blinked. "You know? Why didn't you say something?"

"Larry, my boy," the gym owner said. "I've said something a hundred times. You either don't listen or you don't believe me."

"What did you tell me?"

The gym owner looked at his watch. "Have you finished your workout?"

Larry shook his head.

"Well, go finish it and then come back," the gym owner said. "You're doing something very wrong, and I think maybe now you'll listen to me."

"Tell me now," Larry said.

The gym owner shook his head. "After your workout." He leaned across the desk. "The mistake you're making is one of the principal causes of failure. Every unsuccessful bodybuilder does it. I want you to think about that during your workout, and then come back and we'll have a long talk about it."

"Okay," Larry said. "Don't go away." He turned and walked out of the office.

The gym owner put his feet up on the desk again, tilted back in his chair, and flipped up a protein tablet. He moved his head and caught the tablet in his mouth.

"Fantastic," he told himself.

He flipped another, moved his head, and the tablet hit him in the eye.

Larry French finished his workout. Then he showered, dressed, and walked into the gym owner's office.

He motioned Larry over. "Take a look at that," he said.

Larry glanced out.

"Take a look at what?"

"The shoe store," the gym owner said. "Look at the prices."

Larry looked out again. The store directly across the street was draped and garnished with enough ribbon for an Easter pageant. Large, brightly colored signs in the windows blared the news of a store-wide clearance of men's quality footwear at the most sensational price reductions since the original vending of Manhattan Island.

The gym owner popped the rest of the tablets into his mouth. "Stay here," he said. He squirmed into his jacket. "I'm gonna slip over and pick up a couple of pair."

"They're factory rejects," Larry told him.

The gym owner paused. "Factory what?"

"Rejects," Larry said. "Factory rejects. The soles are made of cardboard, the uppers come off, and the whole store full ain't worth ten bucks."

The gym owner blinked his eyes. "You're putting me on."

Larry yawned. "My uncle owns the store."

The gym owner peered out the window. "That's unreal. How could your uncle handle junk merchandise and still own a store?"

Larry snickered. "I'd own the Taj Mahal if I d meet a yokel like you every day of the week."

The gym owner took off his jacket. He walked behind his desk and slumped into the chair. "Larry," he said. "You gotta be the most discouraging son-of-a-gun I've ever met."

"Not discouraging," Larry told him. "Realistic."

"Maybe so," the gym owner said. "Maybe so."

"Anyway," Larry said, "it's beside the point."

"Really?" the gym owner said. "What was the point?"

"My lack of progress," Larry said. "That's the point. You were going to help me. Remember?"

"Of course I remember," the gym owner said. "Do you think I'm an idiot?" He straightened up in his chair. "Er . . ." he cleared his throat . . . "just give me a brief summary, will you?"

"Certainly," Larry said. "I haven't gained an ounce in the last six months. Is that brief enough?"

"Perfect," the gym owner said. "Concise and to the point."

"And if I don't start gaining pretty soon," Larry said, "I'm gonna take my business elsewhere. How does that sound?"

"Not too good," the gym owner said. He pushed back in his chair.

"Fortunately, However, that dire event need never transpire. I know exactly what your trouble is."

"Then how come you never told me before?" Larry said.

"I have told you," the gym owner said. "I've told you a dozen times. You just don't believe me."

"Tell me again."

The gym owner took the can of protein tablets and set it down in front of Larry. "The reason you aren't gaining is because you aren't getting enough protein. I keep telling you to take a supplement."

Larry snorted. "I don't need that stuff."

"You do need it." The gym owner sighed. "You're so bloody suspicious you think everything is a ripoff." He got up and went to the filing cabinet and started rooting through it. He pulled out paper by the hand, scanned it, and dug deeper into the files. "Got to get this in order, someday," he muttered.

Larry waited patiently.

The gym owner began to hum to himself. He tapped time with his foot and the music got louder. "Dum, dum, de dum, de dum," he sang, "de dum, de dum, de dum dum, dum dum."

"Catchy tune," Larry said.

"The anvil chorus," the gym owner told him. "From 'Il Trovatore'."


"It's an opera," the gym owner explained. "'Il Trovatore.' It means 'The Troubadour'."

"Like in a bullfight?" Larry asked.

"No, no," the gym owner shook his head. "You're thinking of a matador."

"I thought that's what stood in front of a hotel."

"That's a revolving door."

Larry thought about it for a moment. "Listen," he said. "That isn't exactly what I had in mind."

"No matter," the gym owner said. He pulled a folder from the cabinet.

"Here we are."

He walked back to the desk and opened the file. "Take a look."

Larry went around the desk and stood behind the gym owner.

"This is a record of your progress," the gym owner told him. "I graph it off every three months."

"That's nice," Larry said. "It's looks like the herringbone pattern on a twelve dollar overcoat."

The gym owner traced his finger across the lines. "Do you see the significance?"

Larry studied the graph. "Frankly," he said. "No."

The gym owner pointed to the left-hand margin of the card. "Here's where you started. See how all your lifts and measurements started to climb?"

"Yeah," Larry said wistfully. "I gained real well for a while."

"Right," the gym owner said. "Due entirely of course, to my invaluable assistance and expert supervision."

"And my hard work," Larry said. He tapped his fingers on the graph. "And I wasn't taking a protein supplement then, either."

"No," the gym owner said, "you weren't. But you were a beginner. You were bound to make rapid gains no matter what you did. Furthermore, you had a real good foundation to build on from all the exercise you did in that playground you hung around in."

"Yeah," Larry said. "I wish I had a buck for every hour I spent in that place."

"You said it was pretty beat . Do you ever go back there?" the gym owner asked him.

Larry shook his head. "The city sold the property to an auto wrecking company. They put a high board fence all around it."

"I don't suppose they installed new playground equipment, did they?"

"Not exactly," Larry said. "They installed two hundred junk cars and a Doberman."

"Too bad," the gym owner said. "There's a moral there somewhere if you could put your finger on it."

"I suppose," Larry said. He touched the card. "But let's get back to this."

"Okay," the gym owner said. He pointed to the graph. "Now, see where your gains slowed down and finally quit altogether?"

Larry nodded.

"Well, that's where you got beyond the beginner's stage," the gym owner said. "And that's what happens to about 99% of all bodybuilders. They make good progress for a while, get to about the intermediate stage, and then bog down. "They put in all that work and then, just when they're getting to the point of building up a real sensational body, their gains stop."

"And what causes that?"

One of two things," the gym owner said. "Either their training is faulty or their nutrition is. It's gotta be one or the other."

"What about my case?"

"Simple," the gym owner told him. "There's nothing wrong with your training, therefore your nutrition is faulty."

"How do you know there's nothing wrong with my training?"

"Because," the gym owner said . . . he coughed modestly . . . "I designed your program personally."

"You shouldn't be so shy about it," Larry said.

"So the answer to your problem is very simple," the gym owner said. "Improve your nutrition and you'll start gaining again."

"And how do I improve it?" Larry said.

"You must be hard of hearing," the gym owner said. "I just told you." He held up the can. "Take a good protein supplement."

"And I just told you I don't believe in that stuff," Larry said.

"Then forget about training," the gym owner said. "You're just wasting your time."

Larry took the can of tablets. "It can't be that important."

The gym owner leaned back in his chair. "Larry, my boy," he said. "I'm gonna lay it out for you just one more time. If you still don't believe me, then there's nothing more I can do for you."

He held up four fingers. "In the whole history of bodybuilding, there's been four radical advancements. Four things of absolutely devastating importance to bodybuilders. There's been lots of minor improvements and variations, of course, but only four major ones."

"What are they?" Larry asked.

The gym owner bent one finger. "First, he said, "there was the development of the heavy breathing squat as a growth stimulation exercise." He bent another finger. "Second, there was the refinement of the multiple set technique." He bent another finger. "And, third, was the introduction of food supplements." He closed his hand and let it fall into his lap.

There was a long pause.

Larry leaned forward. "What was the fourth advancement?"

The gym owner beamed. "My entry into the field," he said. "I thought you'd never ask."

Larry rolled his eyes upward.

The gym owner leaned back and put his feet up on the desk. "Larry," he said, "pay attention, cause I'm gonna lay something very heavy on you. You ain't never gonna gain properly until you take a protein supplement, and I'm gonna tell you why."


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