Thursday, May 31, 2007

When There is a Will ...

The man is running on the beach in his red swim trunk.

I see his calf and thigh muscles bulging and contracting in the rhythm of his steps, his biceps and triceps screaming for attention in every swing of his arms, his naked torso glistening under the evening sun like the polished sculpture of a Greek god. His stomach was flat and taut, with not even an inch of flab. The heaving chest was boasting a pair of perfectly-formed pectoral muscles, and I could not pull my eyes away from it.

"Oh God, I'm staring at man-boobs!" I feel disgusted as I pressed the button on the remote control.

With a blink the television screen turned blank, wiping off the fantasy lifeguard. Only if reality could be turn off with such ease, I wished.

I was slumped on the sofa of my living room, with a cup of instant noodle in my hand. As I slurped away the last strand of the noodle, I sneaked a peek down my legs. The pair of pudgy limbs reminded me of snooker table's legs. Instead of a flat steely washboard, my tummy was a bouncing, rotund ball of flesh. I pinched the flesh around it, and held those two inches of flab between my fingers. And if there was such a thing as a male-bra, I probably needed a B-cup for the sagging twins.

"You too can have a dream body. Don't give up!"

I turned my head to the direction of the voice.

It came from the treadmill standing proudly at the corner of the room. I was totally freaked out when it spoke to me for the first time, but now I was used to it. The treadmill was no ordinary exercise machine. It was the top-of-the-range PTX3000 model with a grey plastic console that housed an 8'' LCD monitor and assortment of buttons. From a touch-sensitive heartbeat sensor to muscle-density measurement, it had more than enough tools to tell me how in or out of shape I was. It even had a DVD drive and built-in TV receiver to ensure endless hours of entertainment while I was sweating it out. The console was held between two white metallic arms, which looked like the twin neck of the machine that linked the console to the running mill below. The running belt was made of durable plastic with a layer of black soft rubber to provide cushion to the user. There was a handle at both side of the machine, clad in matching black rubber grip, and the handles were adjustable to the height of the user.

No doubt that the machine was engineered to provide maximum comfort and safety while pushing the user to the limits of physical perfection. Else I would not have bought it two months ago.

During the first few days I woke up an hour early than usual to jog on the treadmill. Then in the evening I spent another hour sweating it out before dinner. I felt so alert and alive for that few days, until day number five. That morning I woke up with chains of lethargy coiled around my body. Every movement of my limbs was accompanied by throbs of pain. Apparently on my way to the fitness nirvana, I got sidetracked into the hall of physical suffering. But that was not unexpected, considering I had not exercised regularly for five years. It would take time for my thirty year old body to adapt to this new rigorous regime. Not so easy to be back 'in the zone', so to speak. Thus I told myself to take it easy; not to overdo it and think of long-term.

"Don't learn to fly before you learn to walk!" I quoted the Chinese proverb to myself, and grinned. Not everyone could turn words of wisdom into weapon of procrastination.

So that day I lowered my expectation and revised the work out schedule. I rewarded myself with a one-day break between three consecutive workout days. The three to one ratio sounded good. Or at least for a week it did. One cold and rainy morning a week later, I pulled the blanket over my head, and revised my schedule to a more reasonable and humane ratio of one-one.

Once my will power wavered, the ratio became alive; fluctuating and changing on its own. As of this morning, two months after I first stepped on the treadmill, the ratio was at one-seven. Yes, it had been seven days since I last touched the machine.

"Mr. Chua, it has been seven days, four hours and thirty seconds since the last time you used PTX3000. Please do not give up. It's never easy in the beginning, but it's always worth it in the end," said the syrupy female voice from the console, coaxing me back onto the painful path to physical perfection.

Its advertising blurb was not lying when it claimed 'Having a PTX3000 is like having a personal trainer at home!' I just did not expect it to nag at me! It started two days ago, and the frequency of the advices had been increasing gradually. Worst of all, there was no way of shutting it up. I already pulled its plug from the socket, but apparently the treadmill came with an internal battery in its console. More than a few times I had considered using an axe to hack the machine into pieces, but its three-thousand ringgit price-tag killed that notion.

I was about to call them to complain when my hand phone rang.

"Good evening, Mr Chua," a familiar voice cheerfully greeted me.

"My name's Agnes, and I'm calling from Perfect Solution. We've been receiving feedback from Ir PTX3000 treadmill, and we understand that you're not actively using it."

"Are you serious?" I asked incredulously.

"Yes sir! We're very serious about our customer's fitness. Here at Perfect Solution we …"

"I meant the treadmill actually sent feedback to you guys?" I cut her off.

"Yes sir! Our treadmills are programmed to inform us if the customer is not benefiting from their investment."

Wow. Not only the machine knows how to nag me to exercise, it also can seek help from outside. I could not help but being impressed.

"We ran a thorough scan on your machine, and found no mechanical or software defect. So pardon us for being so direct, but we feel the problem is you, Mr Chua."

Guilty as charged, I said nothing.

"If it's convenient, we would like to invite you to our office tomorrow. We would like to work with you on an alternative plan, or at least refund your purchase."

Wow! While many companies out there promised refund, this is the first time a company actually offered me a refund on its own accord and initiative. No complain letter was needed. Without a single word of threat uttered. And it was not even their product's defect or anything like that.

Something was definitely not right.


The next afternoon I was at the showroom of Perfect Solution in MegaValley shopping mall.

"Good afternoon, sir. Welcome to Perfect Solution," a young lad cheerfully greeted me as soon as I stepped into the showroom.

"Hi, good afternoon. I'm here to see Ms. Agnes Lim," I told him.

"Oh, you must be Mr Chua. Please follow me this way, sir!" The sales personnel escorted me into one of the consultation rooms at the back. It was a small rectangular room with a low wooden table in the middle, and a three-seat leather sofa at one side. An aquarium filled with myriad species of small colourful fishes was perched on a wooden cabinet on the opposite side of the room.

"Would I like some coffee or tea, Mr Chua?" he asked with a smile.

"Coffee will be great, thanks!" I answered. He nodded and left the room.

Barely two minutes later, there was a knock on the door, and a young lady stepped into the room. She was wearing a buttoned-down white shirt with black mini-shirt, which accentuated her curvy figures. Her hair was short, and tinted light brown to compliment the colour of her twinkling set of eyes. She found the perfect balance; looking very appealing without compromising her aura of professionalism.
"Hi, Mr Chua! I'm Agnes," she flashed a winning smile and held out her hand.

As soon as both of us were seated on the sofa, an elderly lady arrived with a tray of beverages and cookies. Everything seemed to operate with a clockwork precision here.

"Mr Chua, as I mentioned on the phone last night, we're very concerned about the drop of activity level in your fitness programme," her voice was soft, but firm. "And based on our latest anabolic and vital rates analysis, we do not believe that you have any physical difficulty to continue enjoying the PTX3000. Therefore, sorry if we're too direct, the problem is your mind. To be specific, you lack of the necessary will power to stay on the difficult path towards your physical well-being. "

That was a nice way to tell me that I was a lazy bum with no discipline to exercise. She flashed her million-dollar smile again, and I wondered who could ever get angry to that face?
"Well, I guess it's my fault. Sometimes I just feel too lazy to work out," I admitted.

"Don't worry, Mr Chua. That's why we're here today. I believe everyone can have a dream body. We'll help you with to achieve it. Just don't give up!" her voice syrupy sweet.

Suddenly I recognize the voice. It was the same voice from my treadmill console, but with a subtle yet important difference. Each word coming from that girl had the warmth of emotions, compared to the cold, robotic intonation by the machine. Perhaps that was something technology still cannot duplicate. Not yet, anyway.

"How are you going to help me? And how much do I have to pay?" I cheekily asked. There was no such thing as a free lunch.

She took out a piece of paper from her leather briefcase and handed it over to me.

"This is a cheque for three thousand one hundred ringgit. It's the refund for your treadmill, plus addition goodwill payment for all your troubles."

I paused for a moment, and then looked straight into her eyes, "So what's the catch?"

Her eyes suddenly twinkled with excitement, and the sweetness of her smile was raised to another level. It was so saccharine that I could have drunk the coffee on the table without a single pinch of sugar, and not noticed the difference. It would not be easy to say 'no' to her, whatever she was going to sell to me.

"The condition of the refund is simply; you have to try these on for at least 2 hours."

Agnes reached inside her briefcase again, and pulled out a silver envelope. The packaging reminded me of the facial masks that my ex-girlfriend religiously wore at night. She tore open the envelope, and pulled out a round silver patch the size of a fifty cent coin. It looked like those nicotine patch used by smokers to quit their habit.

"This is one of those medicine patches, right?" I asked.

She nodded, and explained, "Not quite, but it's something like that."

"You guys want me to try some drugs in order for me to get a refund?" The tide of anger suddenly rose inside my chest. I knew there must be a catch somewhere; most probably customized training programmes or other schemes that cost me money. But never in a thousand years would I have imagined their audacity to push drugs.

"We're not going to put any drug into your body, Mr Chua. Instead, the patch will imbue you with something that has been lacking in your system lately," Agnes replied calmly. The smile never left her face.
"And what may that be?"

She stared into my eyes, and gave me an enigmatic look.

"Trust me, Mr Chua. You're not going to believe if I tell you."


My feet felt as if I was running barefooted on shards of glasses. My lung was breathing in pebbles of fire, which were burning my spine. The world was spinning around me, urging me to end this torture; to collapse.

"Hang on there, Mr Chua! You're very close to your target, but not quite there yet," the robotized voice of Agnes gave me the encouragement.

"Yes, I can do it! I must do it!" my voice shouted inside my head.

About a minute later, I could feel the roller began to slow down, letting me warm down as I trotted towards my targeted distance.

"Congratulations, Mr Chua! You've completed a 2.5 km run today!" the voice came from the console three minutes and seven seconds later.

I wobbled off the treadmill and sunk down onto my sofa; indifferent to the disgusting fact that my perspiration had drenched the fabric cushion. With a practiced gesture, I flicked open a can of 100 Plus and downed its content with a long, slow but uninterrupted gulp. My body was sore and battered, but not my mind. I was happy, and frankly, insatiable. I felt like running another kilometer, but I knew the roller would not move another inch. That was another one of its high-tech features; it would push its user to the physical limits, but by using its complicated bio-metric sensors it ensure that he would not step over the line. I threw a glance at the workout chart on the wall, next to the treadmill. I had not missed a single day of the new fitness programme prepared by Agnes during our meeting eight days ago.

When she first told me about the patch, I laughed in her face.

"Oh, come on! I think this is one hell of an original idea. But, come on, you expect anyone to believe that?" I scoffed at her explanation. To her credit, her smile was as enchanting and sweet as ever.

"Honestly, this is the first time I heard of anything as absurd like this. Your marketing people get high marks not only for originality, but also bravery for even trying to pull this off. You're really insulting the intelligence of your customers! " I ranted on and on, hoping for a reaction from her. But there was none. In fact, the look from her eyes suggested that this was not the first time such accusations were thrown onto her face.

"Mr Chua, I know the concept is very radical. Your reaction is totally to be expected, and understandable," she explained calmly. She was good, very good indeed.

"This patch is the end product of many years of scientific researches by some of the top scientists in the world. It's touted as one of the biggest technology break-through in the past fifty years."

I threw a cold, skeptical stare into her eyes and she returned it with the conviction of an acolyte.

"You're serious?"

She nodded her head.

"Oh, hell! No use for me to argue this with you. If I put this on for two hours, I will get my refund back, right?"

"Yes. That is, if you still want to return the treadmill to us. Which I really doubt so," she was beaming with confident.

"No drugs or other illegal substances, right?" I needed more assurance.

"Yes, we guarantee that. It's stated in black and white in our Refund Form. Our patch has no drugs or illegal chemical." She pushed the piece of paper across the table towards me.

"It contains only pure will power," she proudly claimed.

There. She said it again. I did not hear it wrongly earlier. The patch was designed to imbue the user with doses of will power. It would increase our enthusiasm and fortify our mental strength to overcome laziness and reluctance. Just like the way those colorful pills at pharmacy counter help our body to produce vitamins.

"We always maintain the high quality of our products, so the will power in our patch is sourced only from proven athletes," she elaborated.


"Yes. From our research, we know that athletes have the strongest will power to perform daunting physical exercises. In search of excellence, most of them have to go through endless hours of training, and even overcome the pain-barrier to reach another level of physical perfection," she elaborated.

"I just hope you guys didn't source it from our local footballers!" I jested.

"No, sir, God-forbid! We always maintain the highest level of quality in our products!"

I smiled. It was an interesting concept, but I was still skeptical.

But that was eight days ago.

Today, after using a few packs of the patches, I am a believer. I had never felt so much enthusiasm and willingness, pardon the pun, to exercise as I did in the past eight days. Not even in the days of my youth. The Will Power patch was really a miracle product.

After taking a long shower, I picked up my hand phone and called Agnes.

"Mr Chua! It's so nice to hear from you again," she exuded enthusiasm, as usual.

"Yeah, same here. I just want to tell you that I'm really impressed with your Will Power patch," I told her. Of course I realized she must have already known it, since my PTX3000 was feeding them with my progress reports

"I'm glad that you're happy with our products. I believe you're getting the appropriate returns from your investment now. The samples we gave you were the extract from local athletes. When you're ready, we'll recommend upgrades to International Athletes, and finally to our Olympian Winners patch."

"Yeah, OK." I paused for a moment. "Listen, I'm really intrigued by this wonderful scientific breakthrough, so I'm wondering if there's anyway I can find out more about it."

"Sure, Mr Chua. There's a book titled Neuroscience Evolution by Prof. Alfred Milton. Outside retail price for the book is RM345, but for our customers we're offering a 20% discount."
"Huh? You guys are selling book on this subject?" my voice was layered with surprise.

"We've received so many similar enquiries from our clients. It's only natural for people to be very interested in such a marvelous technology, so our marketing department thought it would be sensible to include the book as our after-sales service," Agnes explained.

"Ok. I think I'll get the book. But it's written by this professor guy, right? I'm just a supervisor in a supermarket, with no degree or what-so-ever knowledge in this neutro-science stuff. Would I have trouble understanding the book?"

"Oh, you don't have to worry about that, Mr Chua," she assured me.

"We've wide range of Intelligence patches."