We rolled out of the grocery store parking lot, the meet up, and shimmied along the shoulder of the road to where the trail banked away up the hill. I said to Rob, “I just don’t ride mountain bikes enough to be any good at it,” and he said, “You seem like a capable enough rider.”
On the face of it, this was a compliment, but as I pistoned away awkwardly at the pedals, I circled back to that word, capable, and sussed it for its true meaning.
I recall sitting in my college counselor’s office, her in a high-backed leather chair, me in the standard issue plastic bowl chair endemic to high schools the world over, and her saying, “Well, John, we should maybe readjust your expectations a little. Your test scores suggest you’re capable of a lot more than your grades bear out.” The ensuing paragraph is lost to me now, but it certainly included the words ‘underachiever,’ ‘wasted potential,’ and ‘lazy.’
I nodded not-sagely. I could see her point, but that horse had already left the barn. “What does it really take,” I thought, “to sit through a liberal arts degree anyway?”
I had not yet broken a sweat, winding up through the rocks and soft dirt of the first climb, when all of this crystallized in my mind. Unwittingly, Rob had called out one of my great struggles.
To be capable is good. It is always preferable to to the other option, that state which finds you prone in a ditch off the side of the road or trail waiting for heart rate and will to return. Capable connotes the intersection of ability and potential. It is the blue sky overhead, the capacious mind, the hot-burning fire of imagination.
The trick, and this is especially true if the well of capacity runs deep, is that it takes a long time and a lot of effort to hoist that heavy bucket of capability up and out into the sunshine. Capability is good, but when it’s not wed to the drive to explore its every depth and contour, college counselors go branding you a lazy, underachiever.
In the end, I secured a B.A. cum laude in philosophy at a well-respected private university. It would have been a complete waste of time had I not met my wife while there and been pushed to take composition classes with a wise and patient author, a man whose kindness as regards my then (and possibly still) immature prose-style launched me on this path you find me now.
Being a capable cyclist has also allowed me to log a lot of miles over a period of decades. Very few of them passed quickly, and rare is the person who has marveled at my great skill on the bike. I am capable, but maybe not a natural.
The things is, somewhere in my soul, I reject many of the measures of capability. I have usually not seen the point of achievements, at least as they are commonly measured: grades, degrees, race placings, bank balances. If you can have these things, they are nice to have. If you can not, there are other things to focus your energy on.
The things I aspire to, patience, decency, peace, acceptance, truth and love, don’t chart very well. The things I got out of school, out of cycling, out of life, were never likely to be quantifiable in a way that meant something to anyone other than me. Maybe this is the patent rationalization of an underachiever, or maybe it’s just a simpler, more realistic way to live.
I am capable of showing up, of behaving reasonably well, and of enjoying myself. As near as I can tell, that’s the whole game, the whole challenge. And if there is one great thing I have become capable of, it is seeing that, at last, no matter how bad I am on a mountain bike.
Image: Matt O’Keefe