by Betty Mills

There’s no shortage of familiar expressions when the topic is ability. Some are enlightening while others dwell in the realm of downright dismaying. Take that old inspirational jolt: “You can do anything you put your mind to.” Really? Immediately the image of the flute soloist at a recent symphony concert floats through my tone deaf brain along with another well worn admonition, “Practice makes perfect.”

Those are simply not adages which apply wholesale to all human activity. Yes, I can clean that abysmally messy garage and I can replace the missing buttons on your favorite shirt and I can drive a car and once even a tractor. I can memorize a sizeable chunk of poetry and make a commendable pot of chili. There was even a time in my life when I could knock out a Supreme Court brief on onionskin paper with fifteen copies completely error free.  

(Let us stop here for a moment of thanksgiving for the invention of the computer, bifocal glasses, copying machines, and air conditioning all of which were cooked up in the brains of people with commendable ability.)

To return for a moment to the flutist, “It’s a gift,” certainly applies along with a fantastic memory, a mind  boggling accumulation of practice time, and the guidance of experienced artists in her field. Those among us with fantastic skills and the willingness to turn their lives over to developing such perfection add sparkle to our lives.

While I take a selective view of an overzealous application of another old familiar adage, “There’s no such thing as can’t,” actually most of us could make a list of events in our lives when we didn’t listen to the pessimistic application. Like the time when, with my Nervous Nellie mother in the car, and half way home on a simple country road, a tire went flat. Mother had a list of alternative activities for me under the circumstances all of which included miles of healthful walking, but knowing my father had spent several hours in my on-the-job flat tire training. I politely developed a deaf ear and fixed the tire.

Our world is actually filled with people with stunning abilities, and they are the ones who make our world livable, improvable, and sometimes forever etched in our memory banks of great events. They are often the visible ones, the notable, newsworthy, spectacular achievers who play flute solos all over the world and even in ours, who are on demand to share their skills with others in the field or for the public.

More frequently, however, our lives are blessed with more ordinary models of the considerable talents which surround us.  Most of us have developed useful skills which serve our lives well, but when the inevitable glitches show up, it is comforting to call for help and know someone with the necessary skills to rescue us is out there.

And how did those rescuers develop those skills? One of my music teachers reduced it to a simple rule: “You have to practice.” And study. And ask questions. And be willing to fail as part of the practice. Then time passes and the world changes and the skills developed are no longer needed at home or away. The classic old example used to be the buggy whip, but we have updated that image at an intimidating rate so that, for example,  taxi drivers can now worry about driverless cars and publishing houses mutter about the demise of the printed page.

In his book “Thank You For Being Late,” columnist Thomas Friedman compares the state of our world in the electronic age to what happened 100 years ago when the advent of electricity fundamentally changed how our world worked. The examples are everywhere in our modern life, but it is not a matter of excluding abilities but of updating them.

Would I like to go back to the manual typewriter where I first learned to pound those alphabetical keys?  Not even for a short letter. I don’t even want to go back to the fanciest of electric typewriters which I once so gratefully mastered. Give me my computer and the number where my skilled computer rescuer can be reached.

There are abilities which reach beyond the mastery of our physical world. The skill we too often take for granted, and certainly don’t financially reward adequately, belongs to those who  are responsible for mastering and  maintaining that irreplaceable element in our world–human lives. They teach our children, care for the weak and disabled, improve daily lives in small ways, and in crucial ones for all of us.

It is an ability than can be trained and improved and maintained, but it will never go out of style for which I am always grateful and frequently willing to be lost in admiration.

All things considered, it really is a wondrous world we happened upon.    


Betty Mills

Betty Mills

Betty Mills was a weekly political columnist for The Bismarck Tribune for 25 years. In her 90 years, she has shared many abilities – as an author, tractor driver, and even as a rattlesnake  hunter.