Case Study: Lessons and Blessings – Overcoming Adversity

Case Study: Lessons and Blessings – Overcoming Adversity

To win at business or life, adversity has to be encountered, faced, fought and defeated. There is no other way. No options. You either beat it, or it beats you. Win, or you lose.

Simple. Right?

No.

It’s never black and white. Never win or lose. Something always bleeds over. Always. Sometimes good – sometimes bad. Sometimes funny – sometimes sad. Most times a little of both. But hopefully each experience brings with it life lessons and blessings.

This is one such story –  but I didn’t know it at the time. Like many mystical magical moments in life, it was gone before I had time to come to grips with my own inadequacy. It was gone before the numbness of an ordinary, normal, average life was pierced by the spear of an angelic character, steeled by a life done wrong.

Take no umbrage, no offense, at the point-of-view of the narrator. It’s a personal recollection. A recollection colored by fond remembrances of two spirits sideswiping each other on life’s unfathomable path.

Sometimes there’s nothing sadder than humor.

SMART VS. SMART-ARSE

Several years ago I got fired for being too smart. That was my recollection. Everyone else’s recollection was I was fired for being a smart-arse.

So, I had to find a new job.  My first interview went well (not).  I was promptly turned down for the CEO position at a well-known hosiery company. Now granted, I didn’t have much (any) experience in the creation, production, marketing, sales or distribution supply chain of the hosiery industry. But, being of the gender I am (a manly kilt-wearing man), I was pretty certain I could articulate the benefits and unique selling proposition (USP) of the product in a compelling and profitable way.

REJECTION EJECTION

Upon rejection (there was some confusion upon my departure. The mistaken impression that I was ejected from the premises may have been surmised had one been watching), I forlornly began wandering the streets of Cincinnati, with my head drooped just about level with my navel.

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Walking like this has some disadvantages. Clarity of vision is one. I ran into something hard, looked up, and before me was … an apparition, an event, a pre-destined meeting, a saint.

A WOMAN IN A WHEELCHAIR.

But Steve, you say to yourself, that’s not terribly uncommon. A little melodramatic aren’t you?

No.

She had no legs. And …

No arms.

She controlled the operation of her motorized wheelchair by blowing through a tube. I was humbled. Dropped low. Deep. My problems were now nothing but a smashed proton in the unfathomable singularity of a black hole.

She was navigating the sidewalks of Cincinnati by herself.

Alone.

To educate people unfamiliar with Cincinnati on how daunting a task this can be, Cincinnati sidewalks were built before sidewalks had been imagined and possibly even before the invention of the wheel. A rut in the sidewalk is typically referred to as an “improvement.”

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Cincinnati Sidewalk Improvement

I saw her get ready to enter a building and leapt forward to open the door. As I did, she spoke, my apparition, my saint, with an angelic voice.

“Hey, Bozo, what do you think I am some useless quadriplegic?” she said.

I guess even saints have rough days.

TERM OF ENDEARMENT

I considered the reference to me as “Bozo (the clown)” as a term of endearment. Why? Because my face had turned absolute white, my nose vivid red, my hair popped out like a bad 70’s Afro (I used to have a good 70’s Afro … I know the difference).

“I’m sorry, I was just trying to help.”

“You want to help? Get in here and buy something.”

She was the owner of the shop. And, in one of those weird synchronicities not fully explained, but hinted at in Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, she sold, you guessed it, women’s apparel. Mostly hosiery.

Her name was Antonia Maria, and that’s all the personal history I ever really learned about her.

MARKET RESEARCH

I was so overwhelmed, humbled, and awed at the obvious obstacles and adversity that Antonia Maria was overcoming daily, if not nanosecond-by-nanosecond, that I bought 37 pair of every imaginable type of hosiery (under the guise of real-time market research for my next hosiery CEO job application).

Her eyebrows arched a bit (well, maybe more than a bit) when I piled them up on the counter. And, with my usual sophisticated schmoozing aplomb

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I explained I had an extended family.

“Lots of females,” said I.

For nearly a year, once a week, I stopped by her shop and bought hose. We became Forrest and Bubba Gump-ette close.

“Hey Bozo.”

“Hey Antonia Maria.”

Each visit was an inspiration. A lifting up, not sad, not melancholy, but a moving, life-affirming, sharing of the human spirit and journey. To trek through this world as she did, daily overcoming the obstacles (physical, economic and social) and adversity she faced … was truly amazing.

Occasionally she’d catch me in a mathematical obfuscation.

“How many females in your extended family?”

“28.”

“Was 25 last week.”

“Newborns … very fertile, my family.”

RIGHT THING. RIGHT TIME

In addition, she was quite the enterprising entrepreneur, having an in-depth, innate grasp of contextual marketing concepts. Antonia Maria had the incredible knack of saying the right thing, at the right time, to the right person, to move them deep into the buying cycle.

“I’m guessing you’ll need a few extra pair of hose this week then?”

I nodded.

I AM RUDE AND DUMB

Yes, I admit. Freely.  Authentically. Rude and dumb. I honestly throw myself on the altar of “what was I thinking?” I could not, often times, refrain from staring at her when I felt she wasn’t looking. I wondered how she did it.

How she coped. How she smiled. How she woke each day and got out of bed to go to work. And a million other “hows” that crossed my misfiring neurons.

Then, it was over.

She disappeared. Her shop closed. No signs. No explanations. No forwarding address. I inquired, but no one knew anything. I hesitated to do any extensive investigation for fear of what I might learn.

The Eyes Have It

It’s said that the eyes are the windows of the soul. If that’s true, Antonia Maria’s soul was on fire. Her iridescent brown-green eyes absorbed and expressed life. Faith. Spirit. Strength. Hope.

To this very moment, I remember everything about Antonia Maria. Everything so incredibly resilient, hopeful, happy, glad and beautiful she ever said.

HOW DID SHE DO IT?

I don’t know. I’m not smart enough to answer that. Never will be. I couldn’t do it. Too weak.

I do know that Antonia Maria had a vigorous life-affirming charismatic spirit that shone through all her adversities. She had a heart wider than the Grand Canyon that would take on any issue with uncharacteristic straight-forwardness. And …

NEVER

Not once, let me repeat this, not once, did she ever complain about … or for that matter even explain, her physical condition.

If I had to guess how she did it?

Spirit. Heart. Guts. Faith … and life-enabling technologies.

The technological marvels wrought by industry research, development, application and availability that enabled Antonia Maria to face, fight, defeat and triumph over her physical obstacles were, unless you actually saw it, almost ineffable. Every person and company associated, in any way, with these technological life-enabling wonders, epitomizes the oft-quoted lines:

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Time passed. time_flies

UNFORESEEN DOWNSIDE

Eventually our relationship had a downside that ultimately gave me the opportunity and skills to overcome an adverse moment in life. Last month, my wife, grandmother, daughter and aunt were rummaging through my basement workshop for “yard sale” items.

HOW MANY PAIRS OF HOSE???

They found 2,093 pair of hose.surprize

When confronted by this gathering storm of frumpettes, I quickly used my marketing abilities to “reposition” this disturbing find and utilized a UES (Unique Explanation Statement) touting the find as in-depth “market-research.” This was supposed to overcome the obstacle of false impression embedded in their minds.

It failed. Utterly. Miserably.

WAR AND PEACE

Only one supporter swallowed the UES – my dog,  Tolstoy.

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(Named so not because he looks like Tolstoy, but because he always backs me during war or peace … provided he receives his weekly stipend of Scooby snacks.)

But being the absolute ruler and king of the castle, I decided to imperiously tell the gathering storm of frumptettes to mind their own business.

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Lunch anyone?

That didn’t work either.

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So, I confronted this impending doom of an adverse moment, and took decisive action. I grabbed the donkey by the horns and used a tried-and-true tactic. One that successful Venture Capitalists use almost daily.

And it worked. The tactic?

THE EXIT STRATEGY

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 The Path  feature image courtesy of H. Kopp Delaney. Please visit his site. One of the best artistic talents of our times.

Lurchuffling with the Third Hand

Lurchuffling with the Third Hand


The old man was singled out by the crowd at a family get together. He was dressed in bib overalls, worn T-shirt, and a past prime denim cap.  A hard-working farmer. It showed. The crowd urged him on.

“Come on old man, play!”

I was young and didn’t understand what they wanted him to do. Play … play what?

BRING IT OUT

“Do it old man, Bring out the third hand.”

The man had a small farm – 125 acres – worked it hard. But farming wasn’t doing well, so he also worked at the General Motors auto plant in Norwood, Ohio.

It was a small farm. But he was a big man. To me a giant. Powerful, mean-looking, grizzled, crusty and always dusty.

“Come on old man! What’s it been? Thirty years?

THE RIVER LETHE

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The old farming autoworker was into his 3rd drink now. Three more than he usually permitted himself. Why? Because he worked 18-20 hours a day, six days a week.  

Drink to him, he explained once to me, “was like crossing the river Lethe.”

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I had no idea what he meant; I was only 7-years-old. The creek next to my house was a river to me.

 THE LURCHUFFLE

People liked to watch him walk.  He didn’t really walk, though. It was more like a lurch, followed by a shuffle. Later, when he’d crossed the “Great Divide,” the family would chuckle about his lurchuffle.

The old man lurchuffled forward, and the gathering quieted. I couldn’t see much because I was so small, but I could see that he had sat down.

A MAPLE LEAF RAG

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The next thing I heard was music. Ethereal, rhythmic, syncopated. An orchestral-like piano started slowly, then swelled like an archetypal story, a Heroes Journey of musical resonance. Powerful. A force you could feel.

The people roared approval.

I felt a loving hand grasp my arm and whisper in my ear.

“Your grandpa has the magic. When he used to play people called him The Third Hand because no one person could match him – could sound like there were three hands playing. It’s an aural effect where two sounds combine – in harmony – and create a third, but different sound.”

“I never knew Grandpa could play. How did he…”

“He was a traveling roadshow piano player. Played at Coney Island and the likes – throughout the country. That song is called the Maple Leaf Rag by some fellow named Scott Joplin. Tawdry, bacchanalian music, but people liked it back then.  In fact, people would come from miles around to try to outplay your Grandpa on that song. It always took two of them to match him. Was said he could play The Maple better than Joplin himself.“

“You don’t even have a piano in the house Grandma,” I said, not understanding how it was possible that this full-time farmer and autoworker – crusty, dusty and grizzled – could create the sounds I was hearing.

“He quit playing years ago. Not sure why. Work.  Family.  Farm.  All three. He never really said. The Third Hand hasn’t tickled the ivories nary a long time.”

I fought my little-butt way through the crowd to watch. When I got there it seemed like he was in another world. His eyes were smoky, unfocused … but his fingers were on fire. His left hand came up at least a foot in the air and bounced like a superball. His right hand roared like an out-of-control river, up and down the keys.  It was happening so fast his hands seemed disconnected in time, from time.

THE THIRD HAND

Then I heard it … The Third Hand.

Some combination of notes, syncopation, harmony and rapidity of prestidigitation created another voice – an invisible third hand playing with him.

I wasn’t the only one that heard it.

People crowded around him and stared. The raucous yapping and yammering prior to his start were replaced by awestruck stares. A hushed moment of amazement at the mystery and magic of a passion musically personified by this most unlikely looking piano player.

My grandpa went from a supraluminal performance of the Maple Leaf Rag to what I later learned was a song called the Heliotrope Bouquet.  A melodious, mellifluous jazz tune, completely different in tone, context, and texture.

Then it was over. He stopped, got up, lurchuffled outside. He wanted to be alone. But I was a kid … so I followed. He sat at a picnic table. Eyes were misty, far off. He never really spoke much. Three words were two more than he normally used in any conversation. I stared at his hands – where had the magic came from? They were rough, callused, wrinkled. He saw me stare and smiled. Shook his head no.

“It’s not the hands, it’s…“ his big old grandpa hands reached up and patted his heart. “And if it’s there deeply enough it never goes away.”

Hints from Heaven

Then he roughed my nappy head up and told me to beat it.

THINGS ARE NEVER AS THEY SEEM

Later, long after he passed, I began to understand what he meant. It’s never a mechanical rote practice or technical application of whatever profession or interest you have. It’s a pure passion imbued in the heart that leads to prestidigitation. A heat in your heart that creates soul-moving magic. The Third Hand is not possible without it.

I also realized this; Nothing is ever as it seems. Grandpa was the most unlikely-looking piano player in the universe, more suited to play the Grandpa in John Mellankamp’s “Rain on the Scarecrow, Blood on the Plow.

BUT THIS IS AS IT SEEMS

Years later I started playing the piano. Couldn’t do it the easy way and get a teacher – had to do it the stupid way and teach myself. Learned how to read music (barely) and play. After I had gotten cocky enough (which wasn’t long), I went to an old friend, Willie Marshall, who owned a  music store, and bought the collected works of Scott Joplin in sheet music from him. Willie assured me the sheet music was an accurate, note-for-note transcription. Better yet, there was a music CD with all the songs on it so I could play along to teach myself.

AN EXQUISITE MOMENT

It was an exquisite moment. Moving. A spiritual-like high that lasted until…

SPECIAL THEORY OF “NEVER GOING TO BE ABLE TO PLAY IT EVER” RELATIVITY

… I got home.  I opened the book to the sheet music of the Maple Leaf Rag.

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It looked like Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. Not the General Theory – The Special Theory – unfortunately, I know the difference. I spent the next six months practicing the damn song and just couldn’t get it right. I couldn’t get my rendition to match the music on the CD. Occasionally I’d get close, get a whiff of magic, of pixie dust – but it was like someone had physically dubbed the Third Hand into the music.

Finally, I got frustrated and went back to Willie for advice. Took the book and music CD with me. Willie was a long-time rock-n-roller, super-talented, could play any instrument (I hated the guy) and was a master sight-reader. My music reading was more like Braille with a jackhammer.

“Willie, I’ve tried and tried to play this song and just can’t get it. I can’t get the sheet music to sound like the CD. It’s like somebody dubbed a third hand onto the music”

Willie looked at the sheet music, then the back of the CD, and then looked at me.

“I said the sheet music was a note-for-note transcription. It is. You never got close to making it sound like the CD  version?”

“No. A couple times I almost did. Thought I nailed it. Actually sounded like three hands were playing. But really, only for a couple brief moments.  I couldn’t  do it consistently. It really does sound like there are three hands playing.”

THINGS REALLY ARE NEVER AS THEY SEEM

Willie took a deep breath and let out what might be called a belly-wrenching guffaw.

“There are three hands you big dummie! They dubbed a third hand in on the CD. Didn’t you read the liner notes? I never said the CD was note-for note with the sheet music.

STUPID IS AS TWO HANDS DOES

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Nothing makes you feel more stupid than realizing you’ve been trying to play 3-hand music with 2-hands … for six months. It did make me feel a little better about my progress. But stupider. So, taking the high road I said,

“Why would they do that? Don’t you think that should have bolded the text so I would’ve known three hands were playing?”

Bold what you didn’t read so you wouldn’t read it?”

Willie had a point. Another reason I hated the guy. Besides being a musical savant, he was annoyingly logical.

“Why would they dub a third hand in,” I said, trying to extract my stupidity gracefully with a musical theory inquiry.

THEY CALLED HIM THE…

“They were trying to recreate a sound from some old-timers tale about when they used to have traveling piano shows around the country. There was a legend that some long- forgotten piano player could play that song better than Scott Joplin himself. He’d get on stage and it would always take two piano players to match him. Said he played Joplin better than Joplin himself. They called the guy The Third Hand. 

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Just a myth though.

A legend.”

Things really are never as they seem.