The general consensus about the new guy at my gym is that he's weird. The kindhearted claim he just "takes a little getting used to," but...

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The general consensus about the new guy at my gym is that he’s weird. The kindhearted claim he just “takes a little getting used to,” but those who don’t mince words maintain he’s outright creepy. You’d think a shirtless dude with six-pack abs, impressive pecs and a fairly attractive face might receive a more positive reaction. But maybe you haven’t met Bob.

Were you acquainted with him, you’d likely remark on Bob’s skin tone — a troubling, muddy orange not found in nature. The unsettling hue could be written off as a grisly spray-tan mishap, if it weren’t for the fact that Bob’s eyes, shorts and tidy, side-parted hair are exactly the same color. An entirely monochromatic man definitely takes a little getting used to.

Lifelike opponent

Bob’s given name is Body Opponent Bag, and he’s designed especially for kickboxing classes like mine. He’s built to look and feel human, constructed of plastisol (a high-strength, slightly springy, oddly skinlike material), and filled with urethane foam. There is actually a phalanx of identical Bobs who have recently joined the class, but we refer to the collective in the singular. One love, one Bob.

Though Bob is touted as a “sparring partner,” it would seem an unequal pairing. For one thing, Bob doesn’t have arms or legs. He’s basically a torso and head mounted on a water-filled base, weighing in at more than 250 pounds. But what Bob lacks in limbs he makes up for in groin — in fact, his full name is “Bob With Groin” (to distinguish him from a previous model that stopped at the waist). This, as his marketing copy enthuses, makes him a prime candidate for “the low blows.”

When Bob first arrived in our class, we were curious. Regulars like myself were accustomed to jabbing, hooking and kicking tall, foam-filled, vinyl-covered bags. While we may have occasionally imagined faces on the smooth cylinders (the days leading up to the 2004 election were particularly hard on the bags), they remained faceless, nameless, featureless bags.

But with Bob’s arrival we were faced with a human face. Specifically, it’s a sort of 1950s comic-book noir face, with features representing an anonymous and inoffensive mix of races.

By means of introduction, our indefatigable instructor, Cliff, explained that Bob would improve our kickboxing skills by forcing us to focus on where our blows (low and otherwise) land.

“Bob is better than the bags because you can concentrate on where you’re aiming, and see what really happens,” Cliff said. “When you punch Bob’s face, it goes, buhwhannnggg.” He delivered a powerful right hook, and indeed, Bob’s neck snapped dramatically to the left and bounced back. Buhwhannnggg.

Those kicks hurt

Sure, it looked cool, but what we learned right away was that, million-dollar babies and Cinderella men be damned, it’s hard to hit a human face. Even those of us who’ve been taking the class for years found ourselves hesitating with Bob. While I had shown the vinyl bag no mercy, with Bob I felt myself pulling punches. “Sorry Bob,” I’d think, with every hook and cross. “Oh. Sorry, man.”

I wasn’t the only one. “I feel bad,” was a repeated refrain. One woman, after pummeling Bob in the chin, relayed her sympathy with a prolonged frowny face. During the jump kicks, another woman said, “I don’t feel right kicking Bob in his … stumps.”

I noticed, however, that the men in the class took to Bob right away, falling upon him like recess bullies. As Cliff explained it, “Society has conditioned women to be feminine, demure and slightly submissive, so most are a little reserved about hitting it at first.” When he said this I thought, ” ‘It’ has a name, and it’s Bob!”

Perhaps surprisingly, Cliff did not recommend picturing a real-life object of anger as a motivational strategy. “If you visualize Bob as an ex-husband or boss from hell,” he said, “you get focused on your negative feelings without considering technique, form and safety.” Did I mention that Cliff can be kind of a buzzkill?

Nonetheless, Cliff was relentless in his efforts to get us to “Really bang it! Bang the bag! Bang the bag!” He kept reminding us not to feel sorry for Bob. “Bob is an inanimate object,” he would say, several times per class, as if we were nursery schoolers or aliens who weren’t quite sure what to make of this orange, limbless man. Each time he said it, I couldn’t help noticing Bob’s dismay.

Multiple indignities

Then again, Bob always looks slightly perplexed. Perhaps in an effort to render him aggressive but not too fearsome, the manufacturers have given Bob a brow more knit than furrowed. “Why?” Bob seems to be puzzling. “Why must you keep hitting me?” Less charitable souls deem his a look of constipation.

I am not proud to report that digestive accusations are only a sampling of many indignities Bob suffers in silence. He is the mute recipient of smack talk, slow dancing, caresses, embraces and kisses. He is sung to, tweaked, and dragged by the neck like a kitten in a toddler’s grip. He has been on the wrong end of noogies.

His look says, “Your behavior demeans us both,” but as an armless, legless, inanimate object, Bob has few avenues of retribution, save the exposed bolts dotting his spine and the accompanying sticker warning, “Paralysis and even death may occur while using this equipment.” Also, his skin is remarkably grippy, which in the course of elbow strikes can lead to painful “Bob burn.”

But now, having spent some quality time together, Bob and I have come to an understanding — a real sparring partnership, as it were. I kick Bob in the lats, he looks quizzical. I punch him in the schnoz, he goes, buhwhannnggg. He has a job to do and he steps up to it like a man, or at least, like a fake man skewered on a water-filled base.

Sometimes, after really laying into him, I take his rubbery face in my gloved palms, gaze deeply into his pupil-less eyes and say, “Thanks, Bob.” Now if only I could wipe that look off his face.

Northwest Lite is an occasional humor column in Northwest Life.

Brangien Davis is a regular contributor to The Seattle Times: