Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Little Mogul That Could by Thomas Sullivan


The picture of the mogul in the Business Section is a classic. The 80 year old man heading a vast business empire has a flaccid pouch of skin drooping from his chin like a Foster Farm chicken. His puffy face is an unsettling tapestry of pale-white and rash-red. It looks like an instructional slide from a cut-rate mortician school, where the student whose work is on display is obviously still trying to master the art of embalming.

The high-powered world of global commerce is rarely kind to the human body.

But it’s the eyes that really grab your attention. They’re still fierce and penetrating, the look of an alpha-male warrior in the high-finance jungle. The piercing gaze screams you can submit me to the grinding Manhattan-Hamptons-Caribbean ritual, you can drag me down with fake marriages and distant kids with names like Summer and Brittany, but I’ll still come out the other end as the Lion King of mergers and acquisitions. The eyes are like two middle fingers just daring you to disprove their owner’s mettle.

As you read through the story you see the usual litany of confusion and melodrama. The declining stock price and the Golden Warrior’s triumphant return from semi-retirement to save the day. The no-holds-barred sparring with angry analysts and shareholders. The falling out with the daughter, who is now a vice chairman at one of the companies in the sprawling empire. The ongoing litigation with a son over control of a portion of another company in the network. In professional terms it’s light years away from “clean up your room or you don’t get dessert,” but in human terms it’s not really all that different.

But just when you’re expecting more sordid details, maybe something about a nasty divorce involving a high-society arm piece valued more for her cleavage attributes than her brains, a surprise hits you. Someone interviewing the mogul asks about his legacy, to which the man replies that he wants to be a known as a loving and supportive father and grandfather.

Well, this is a show stopper. Given everything you just read it makes no sense. Looking at those eyes, these sentiments seem simply unfathomable. It’s make you wonder if the comment was geared toward boosting the flagging stock price.

But then you think about the other titans of industry, the Carnegies, the Mellons, the Vanderbilts, and ponder what they did in their later years. Mostly compassionate things like establishing universal libraries, charitable foundations, and public trusts. All done completely voluntarily, with no prodding from the demands of business for profit. In fact, they were done in spite of profit.

Undoubtedly something happens, the human equivalent of blowing a fuse. Maybe it appears suddenly, like a revelation descending from heaven in the shower one day, or maybe it percolates slowly, like water damage gradually staining the living room ceiling. No one who hasn’t been there can say how or why, but the need to control, dominate, and boost the ego starts to go away. You really don’t want to have your name or your photo in the paper anymore. The attraction to exorbitant meals, lavish homes, and monogrammed cuff-links starts to crumble. You don’t laugh anymore at the peace and love hippies with their beads and indian-tassle shirts because you realize they might be onto something (and not just the whole multiple partners thing). After years of throwing fits in the corporate boardroom you just want to become a loving human again. The women in your life might have scattered like dandelion spurs on the wind, but there’s still the offspring. And the first place you want that love to flourish is with your kids and their kids.

Eventually most people figure it out, if their heart hasn’t given out yet, literally or figuratively. Outside of genuine love for other people, the rest of the things in life are largely meaningless. It’s a good idea to remember that the Hummer won’t come to your funeral and weep.

The end of the article in the business section fills me with hope for the mogul. He’s found an anti-oxidant bean from the Himalayas and is tossing them back like popcorn. He’s exercising something other than stock options nowadays, working out for over an hour each afternoon. Apparently he’s saved his heart figuratively and is working on the literal.

I’m rooting for the man. He’s The Little Mogul That Could.

Strong Black Coffee - Jared Mees & The Grown Children

Thomas Sullivan is the author of You Can’t Paint Chainlink: True Tales From A Beautifully Flawed World which is available at His writing has recently appeared in the webzines EleventhTransmission, GrumbleMagazine, Rumpot Magazine, Backhand Stories, Burst, Admit2, and The Externalist.

Photo by Adam Lawrence.

"Artist" unknown.

Jared Mees is the co-founder of Tender Loving Empire a gallery/store/record label in Portland. His second album, Caffeine, Alcohol, Sunshine, Money, was released on October 7th.

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