A ball, a box, and a button
When it starts, the box is small. Any motion causes the ball to move inside the box, and it almost always triggers the button. Over time, we learn ways to grow the confines of the box, or the box grows on its own. Motion can still trigger the button as the ball moves around, but the bigger the box gets, the less likely the ball will hit the button. But the button is still there.
Growing up, my father owned a bike that I rarely got to see him ride. He bought it sometime around when I was born, at the Montclair Bikery, according to a sticker that’s still affixed to its frame. The bike is a royal blue Panasonic Villager, a bike from the company that you likely know from decent TVs and hi-fis in the ’90s. Kōnosuke Matsushita, Panasonic’s founder, had an affinity for bicycles. He worked in a bike shop when he was young, and invented a type of battery-powered bike lamp in the 1920s. Matsushita died in 1989, the same year that Panasonic stopped selling bikes in the US.
I like to think my dad’s love of technology lured him towards the Panasonic brand. This is the man who gave me a copy of Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital when I was 10 and wrote in it to “enjoy the future.” In the mid-‘80s, when my dad got the bike, the Japanese electronics invasion was in full swing, and everything the country was exporting to the West felt like the future. In reality, he probably got it because that’s the brand of affordable, sensible ten-speed bikes that the Montclair Bikery had in stock.
In the ’80s, my dad rode the bike a lot, I’m told. He used to train for Iron Man triathlons on it up at his parents’ cabin in the woods near Littleton, New Hampshire. My aunt used to tell me, when I’d visit with her in the summer (when my dad was usually still back home working) that he used to swim clear across the lake and run several towns over for training. These were feats that seemed downright Herculean to pre-teen Mike, especially as someone who had done scant little exercise outside of what they made him do in school.
By the ’90s, my dad had seemingly put the bike out to pasture. It sat, with its shocking blue frame, hidden in the shadows of our dining room that we only ever used if company was coming over. Then my mom would make him hide it in the kitchen. He would never leave it outside, under any conditions.
My dad had begun concentrating on running, eventually taking part in the 1996 London Marathon. But my fascination with the bike never waned. Once, when I was 16, I took the bike out for a ride while he was still at work and my mom was out. I’d always wanted to see what it felt like on top of this proper road bike owned by the family Hercules. Shockingly, I was hardly up to the task: The seat post was far too high for me (my dad was several inches taller than I am), making the pedals difficult to turn, and I’d never been on a bike with drop handlebars where the brakes are so far out in front of you. There’s a reason they’re often called suicide brakes.
I got a few miles from home, into Kensington, when traffic started to build up on a large road. I needed to bear left, but no one was letting me. I slowed down, and was rear-ended by a navy Bentley Continental GT, which instead of catapulting me directly off the bike, jammed me forward onto a curb, turning the bike’s front wheel into a metal rendition of Pac-Man’s face, and then launching me onto the sidewalk. Thankfully I’d also borrowed my dad’s helmet, so nothing — other than the precious bike — had been damaged. I found exactly 20p in my pocket and called my mom’s cellphone, blurting out as quickly as I could what had happened and to come pick me up before the payphone ran out.
After the expected scolding, we took the bike to a local bike shop, who put a new wheel on. Neither of us knew at the time that there are several different wheel sizes, and Europe doesn’t tend to use the same ones as the US. The repairman replaced it with the closest they had, which meant the front wheel was minutely shorter than the rear. It also used a different inner tube that requires a different pump. We couldn’t tell the difference, and put the bike back where it had been.
When my dad got home, within minutes, he called out to my mom and me to ask why the bike had been messed with and had a new wheel. We couldn’t even notice the difference, and he’d seen it from a distance instantly. I was as impressed as I was embarrassed. He was annoyed.
It wasn’t until after my dad had died that I rode the bike again. When my parents relocated back to the US after their 30-year sojourn in the UK, the bike made the trip back to its home country. It sat in the basement, next to my bike from college, and other things that didn’t get unpacked from the move back. I took the bike out for a ride around the street, and still felt daunted by it and quickly came back.
Today would’ve been my dad’s 67th birthday. Before he got sick, he was in the best shape of his life, running triathlons again in his 50s, although relying on far more modern loaner bikes. I got that sense again, of being impressed and embarrassed: I was in the prime of my youth I and couldn’t run a mile.
My dad’s fitness was always a source of anxiety for me. I knew how carefully he looked after his health, and how poor of a job I did and how little I did to change that. It wasn’t until after he had been sick for a few years before I tried to change that. I cut out bread and beer, and worked out every day. I lost a bunch of weight, and by the summer of 2014, I was able to run a half marathon. But the way I went about trying to get healthy was untenable, with a drastic diet and ample free time in grad school that I just wouldn’t have in the future.
A few years after moving to New York and getting into journalism, my weight ballooned higher than it’d ever been before. The stress of the industry took its toll on me. I was eating terribly, drinking too much, and working constantly. What has always been a sort of latent discomfort in the background of my mind blossomed into full-blown anxiety. I was worried about my health, consumed by it, but paralyzed on how to fix it.
I struggled to figure out how to deal with it, and eventually reached out for help. I’ve been going to therapy for a few years now, and things feel much more manageable now. My therapist first told me the ball, the button, and the box metaphor, and over time, I’ve found my experience with anxiety to line up with it pretty well. Your anxieties don’t go away, but far fewer days feel terrible.
Not long after my dad died, someone sent me a post from a site about dealing with grief that used the same box metaphor. I guess it makes sense, given that grief can also be pervasive and debilitating. It doesn’t go away, but living with it gets more manageable.
I decided earlier this year that I wanted to take ownership of my dad’s bike. It was collecting dust at my mom’s house, and I wanted to put it to use. It’s likely that this stemmed from starting to think a bit more holistically about my health when the pandemic began. In 2019, Kerry brought home a Peloton, and just before lockdown, she’d inspired me to start using it. I rode it just about every day from March 2020 til this summer (now I’m also running and swimming, too.)
We also experimented with various things like switching to non-alcoholic beer (Athletic Brewing does things that just shouldn’t be possible without booze), trying out keto (it gave me the flu and I hated it), and generally switching out carbs and meat for vegetables. Some of it stuck better than others, but I’m down two suit jacket sizes, and I don’t plan to stop there.
The Peloton got me interested in real bikes again, something that had waned in me after college when my dad couldn’t ride them anymore. I went up to visit my mom for July 4th, and brought the bike back home with me.
I’ve only ridden it a few times since I brought it back, as it still feels like I’ve taken something that wasn’t mine, just like it did when I was 16. I lowered the seat post, and started replacing some parts, too. I just installed a new saddle, and new pedals and straps are on their way here. Even if this becomes my own personal ship of Theseus, it will still be my dad’s bike. I won’t change out the handlebars and suicide brakes that my dad pressed for years before I could even walk. I won’t buff out the dings and dents, however minor they are, that he put on the frame over the years.
My goal for next year (before the big goal, getting married to the love of my life in September), is to restore and ride the bike in the Pan-Mass Challenge. At its longest, it’s a 200-mile, two-day ride across Massachusetts to support the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, which happens to be where my dad was treated. Before the pandemic, three good friends of my dad’s — Aaron McCormack, Sarah Lalone, and John Lalone — rode the race in his honor, raising thousands for Dana-Farber. I remember having a similar feeling of amazement I’d had about my dad’s achievements that they were able to ride so far in honor of my dad.
I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it. I’ve been biking longer distances outside, and started taking the types of 90-minute Peloton classes generally reserved for the clinically insane. (They’re so long that they tell you to bring a banana with you or you’ll hit a wall. The first time I did one, bananaless, I hit it hard.) I haven’t registered yet, partially because 2022 registrations aren’t open yet, but also because I have that same fear that’s kept me from following in my dad’s footsteps before. I haven’t wanted to try, to avoid failure.
But I’ve started to realize that exercising, much like grief and anxiety, is like that same box. When you start, almost everything is unattainable and painful. Running a mile earlier this year, having not run seriously since 2015, felt like Ixion’s wheel: Time just stopped and all I felt was searing pain that I assumed would last the rest of eternity. In reality, I was just really winded from running for like 10 minutes. Over time, the pain becomes more manageable, and starts to recede. It’s always there, but instead of it setting in after a few minutes, it might take 20, or 60.
My father has been gone 938 days, but I’m still learning from him. I had exactly one conversation with him about anxiety before he passed away, and he tacitly admitted he struggled with it as well when he was my age. The solace he found, he told me, was on the bike.
There will always be boxes with buttons and balls, and they will constantly be shrinking and growing. Finding constants and things to ground yourself with are how to deal with them, whether that’s a bike you plan to do extremely difficult things with, or people who are there for you. Even while the button is still there.