Rules of the Game

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She had to protect the company... and herself.
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When I was growing up, I learned that in order to talk with my father, I needed to learn his language. That meant that since an early age, I was steeped in the rules of corporate leadership and finance that he used in running the family company. You probably have not heard of Kendal Property Management like you are unaware of most small businesses that fill a vital role before the end product.

Dad introduced me to his world with a simple statement: "A corporation is a tyranny." That is, he explained, it has to act for itself first because no one else will. "A tyranny is just a power structure that runs to perpetuate itself, instead of for some social goal. It's not so much that we can't be nice guys," he would say, "but that we have to keep the bottom line in view at all times. Otherwise, the shareholders revolt, they take your company from you, and they'll run it into the ground chasing pipe dreams. There's always some newly-minted idiot who promises the world and then gets a job in France when the ballistic excrement hits the oscillating rotor."

I had to look up some of those words.

My name is Kay Kendal, and as you may have guessed, I work in the same firm. It's not a terribly exciting business, since we're a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT), a corporation that owns and manages real estate. We negotiate hard for undervalued property, add it to our portfolio, and then our shareholders benefit from the increased value of our shares. The retirement accounts that your mom, dad, brother, or sister have probably include some of our shares, since we have for over forty years kept value rising.

At age 33, I consider myself fortunate to have it all: children, career, lover, and cats. You might notice there's no husband in the picture. Let me back up a minute...

Rule 1: Always identify the bottom line.

"Daddy, Davy's asked me to be his boyfriend."

I looked up at the gruff bear of a man who usually spent his time in the office. When he talked on the phone, sometimes I got scared. He had a loud, powerful voice when he spoke to adults, but when he talked to me, he used his best indoor voice.

"Well, Peaches, what's the bottom line? I mean, what do you get out of it?"

"Um..." I really had no idea. "Everybody at school has a boyfriend, and we can send valentines, and..."

"I think I understand," he said gently. "It's part of growing up. Just make sure you get what you want out of it. Tell him up front: you want the valentines, holding hands, kissing, conversation, whatever. then tell him what he can't do. Make the deal, kid, and you'll not regret it if he decides to change his end of the bargain later on."

I think I scared Davy, and probably all the parents who heard the story facepalmed at the corporate logic, but Daddy won me over a few weeks later when the various "boyfriends" of my friends started shirking on their part of the bargain. Davy stayed true, at least through the end of sixth grade, when his family moved to Brazil to manage a tire company.

Rule 2: Never accept renegotiation.

By the time I made it out of middle school and into ninth grade, having a boyfriend meant something more serious. I had learned by that point to soft-pedal what Daddy (now usually "Dad") had told me. If a boy asked me to go steady with him, I said, "So you mean... for like holding hands between classes, or kissing at the school dance? I can do that, but we'll have to talk if you want more."

Needless to say, my chance of going farther was very limited by this approach, but I was okay with this. My mom's sister, our auntie, had gotten herself into a bad situation where she moved in with some guy and he turned out to be bad person. Then she got pregnant. "Now she's locked in," said Dad. "He renegotiated by getting her knocked up, so she's tied to him."

When I found myself thinking a lot about Michael Hamilton, the boy from two streets over who was developing muscles and wavy blond hair, I asked my mom what I should do. She said something about girls having to be careful about which boys they said "yes" to, and then wandered off when the phone rang. It was one of her church groups that promotes compassionate capitalism in the third world. I looked at her back for awhile, and went to ask my dad.

"So you see a property you want to acquire," he began.

"Daddy!" -- he got the full pet name for being so rude -- "I -- he's not a property! -- it's just -- I want -- I don't know!"

"If two companies decide to merge, what are they?" my dad asked.

"Uh... properties, I suppose," I said.

"So you want a merger with this guy?"

"Dad! That sounds gross!" I said, wrinkling my nose.

"Oh, I know you teenagers," he said, mock exaggerating. "Turn my back on you for a minute, you'll be doing a horizontal merger in the back yard!" (It took me two semesters of economics classes to appreciate this humor fully.)

"Well, we're just friends," I said.

"And you want to be boyfriend and girlfriend?" Dad asked.

"Yeah..."

"So you're negotiating that deal, aren't you? Listen, Pumpkin, this sounds horrible, but life is like business. The rules we play by, they just work, because they take into account that most people are simply self-interested. They don't know any better, and when push comes to shove, they fall back on that 'I want' and 'Me first.' They don't think of others or give something back like you do in a loving family. So you assume that this is their motivation and account for it in your planning, and then you never get surprised."

"I think I get it," I said.

"You've got a few things of value. You have your time, your love or affection, and your virginity. They're all worth something."

"Dad!" I sang out in anguish, my cheeks reddening.

"Hear me out, darling," said Dad. "Anything that people want or need has value. You have things of value to give. I know this because I love you more than anything else, but putting aside my love, I can see that you're an intelligent, moral, and beautiful young woman. You have value. Love can overcome the self-interest of humans. When you love someone, you are bonding to them forever, pledging to care about them as much if not more than you care about yourself, like the man we read about in the news who died in a fire saving his family. He loved them more than his own survival."

"Okay, so..." I said, not sure where this was leading.

"So this guy you're tender on, he's got to bring something to the table. If he's not as intelligent, moral, and attractive as you are, then he's the cheaper property and needs to throw something else into the deal. You have to make sure he knows what he's trading for, and where he stands, before you give him anything. You won't be a virgin forever, and you have to hand it to the right guy, preferably in trade for something good. If he's your equal, that means his hand in marriage. If he's not, he better be rich or really good-looking, but I won't stand for you being with any man who isn't quality. I'll beat his ass and my lawyer will get me out of jail."

"He's just a boyfriend!" I was fully red in the face now.

"I know, Sugar, but you have to think of the deal in terms of your long-term strategy. Suppose you get his class ring or whatever, and things are going really well. You want to be able to turn around and transfer boyfriend-status into husband-status, someday, hopefully in the very distant future. But what if he turns out to be a creep, or a cretin, or just a boring disappointment? You want to be able to exit the relationship, like a contract between you, and git yourself on the high road out of town."

"Okay, that makes sense. So what do I do?"

Dad thought a minute. "You have to decide how far you want it to go. Don't ask your mother; she can't deal with her lovely little babies growing up. I'm not sure I can either, but I'll try. If I could do my life over to win everything the first time, I would have been a virgin at marriage. Yeah, I know. Don't ask. You don't want to know anyway. I thought I was in love, but really, I was just in a holding pattern until your mother came along. But, you figure out what you want a boyfriend to do for you, and then what you're willing to do, and put that on the table. If he's cool with it, he'll let you know. All the experts say that 'communication' is essential to a good relationship, and I don't disagree, but it starts before the relationship is formed."

"No, Dad, I mean, uh... how do I ask him?"

Dad looked relieved. The pinkness faded from his cheeks. "That's easy. Men are simple on the surface, difficult underneath. Keep it on the surface. Go talk to him about anything that's not relationships. See if he smiles at you a lot, and if he does, hang out until he gets up the courage to ask for your number. Men are like bees, darling. They're more scared of you than you are of them, although you should be scared of some of them. Just go there, and be there, until he's ready to ask."

Rule 3: The Three Categories

Michael Hamilton faded in the rearview mirror. I liked him, but he was younger at heart than I was, basically still a boy. We went out a few times, this got around the school, and I was accepted as being normal and having normal urges. He was good enough to spread the word that I was a good kisser after we "broke up" over the summer, and always treated me fairly. Ten years later I met his husband Bill. Well, I guess I didn't have much of knowledge of things back then.

Having a few boyfriends like Michael got me through high school. I was in no hurry to lose my v-card, since I figured Dad was right about that one: girls who gave it away were a dime a dozen, but a girl who knew her own value was a mountaintop, and boys like a challenge. I made it to a decent college so I could be close to home, did okay in school, and got a job working for an investment firm that was impressed by my Business Administration degree with a minor in Economics. With a loan from my parents, I took on an MBA program at night school and really killed myself studying.

This meant that there really was no time to date, so I found myself a virgin at 26, with a good degree and a good job. This opened doors, and I met my future husband, Ralph Huntington, at a company party where my boss literally pushed me out of the archetypal smoke-filled room and said, "Be young, have fun, and have that report on my desk Monday... afternoon." Ralph did not strike me as husband material at first, nor was I seriously looking. I'm my father's daughter and if I was hunting husbands, there would have been research, a spreadsheet, a timeline, and a budget.

But Ralph did one thing that no man had done so far. That is, he managed to fail to flirt while showing strong interest.

I will never grace the cover of a magazine, but I'm a solid five nine with auburn hair, a slender but not thin figure (no supermodel) that has a good deal of muscle thanks to my habit of riding long distance in the Hill Country. My least saleable asset is my bust, which is not the 36D often talked about on internet erotica sites, but a rather staid B-cup, although they are firm and even slightly "perky." I am told I have nice eyes and a good smile. For full disclosure, I have a slightly strong jaw and too much hair, so despite it having a nice color, its waves end in a shaggy tsunami down my back. But, did I mention I have an MBA, a reasonably high IQ, and can converse on just about any subject in three languages?

Ralph wandered over, with the hooded eyes of boredom but a carefree walk and smile, and casually asked me what I thought about Keynes. "What, do you have a paper due or something?"

"No, no, nothing like that," he said, laughing. "I'm just curious, since I saw that you made the list of fresh-minted MBAs, and almost none of them have an opinion here."

My eyes narrowed. Not just men like a challenge. "His theories aren't bad, with two caveats. Because he brings in externalities through government action, his economic system becomes a permanent change to the national economy. Not good or bad, just a downside. Also, since he relies on a business cycle based on stimulus, he creates a forced growth cycle that is going to make inflation management a central issue."

The hooded eyes woke up. "Nothing I can pick a bone with there," he said. "My only riposte here is that the kind of cycle you talk about, stimulus leading to growth, might be what is required to drive technological advancement."

And just like that, we were off on a wild tangent of our own. If it was a movie, the rest of the room would have faded away, with just us in a little circle of light. We got off of economics quickly -- he was another MBA, with his undergrad in Economics with a minor in Pre-Law -- but got on to culture, music, books, and travel.

People talk about just clicking, but it didn't happen. We were at odds on just about everything, but not directly opposed, more like taking half of the other side and half of each other's sides. It was for lack of any other better description simply a good, energetic conversation, and it drew in people around us. Later my boss said that I seemed in my element.

When I went home that weekend, my parents greeted me as normal, with a twist.

"You look well-rested," said my mother, stepping back to look at me. "You must have taken my advice and gotten more sleep."

"Not being in night school has done wonders for me," I said. "I've even got Saturdays."

My dad looked up from his book, scanned me up and down and sideways, and said: "Who is he? If he doesn't treat you right, I'll break his spine in nine places and shove a Corolla up his ass."

"He's just a friend, so far," I said.

Dad made a grumpy sound. Then finally he said: "In life, like in business, there are three categories of people. There are those who are for you, those who are against you, and then everyone else. The third category is the biggest and the most dangerous. They won't try to hurt you, but if you let them, they will take from you. They're either unaware of you, neutral about you, or just opportunistic like your average person, who'll take a wallet if it's left out on the counter but won't go out to mug people. They're not bad, they're not good... they're a grey area. You have to figure out which category he's in as soon as possible."

I thought a moment. "I don't know, but I don't know him well yet. I'm going to suss him out with a few day-dates that are normal life stuff, like Mom taught me. It's easy to be Prince Charming in a restaurant with a romantic setting, candles and flowers and stuff, and it's very easy to be a suave stud in bed, but the man who can go with you to get your flat tire fixed, help you set up a barbecue, or go horseback riding in the country is more of a keeper."

"Atta girl," said Dad. "You remember my rap on the Three Answers, too."

"Of course," I said. "For any question, there are three possibilities: yes, no, and 'no answer.' The last one is the biggest category, like 'undecided.' It could mean 'not now' or 'never,' could mean a lack of relevance or unawareness, or it could be opportunism, just waiting for the right time. If someone else springs a question on me, he has the First Mover advantage, and that places me at a disadvantage, so often a strategic 'no answer' is the right way to regroup."

"Atta girl," he repeated, and went out to the porch for a cigar, one of his Montecristo Whites. He told me long ago that he went outside not because he had to, but because he wanted to avoid bothering my mother with the smell.

"Did you negotiate for something in return?" I had asked.

"No," he said. "I love her. She gets something called 'goodwill,' an important concept in business. If you deliver a good quality product or service at a good price, people are going to keep using you until you fuck up. If you get their order wrong, cost them money, or worse, do something unethical or opportunistic, they're going to start looking for someone else. Love is like ultra-goodwill. I do things for her to make her happy because her happiness is more important than mine. I don't smoke out here because it makes me happy to do so, in fact, I hate it. But when I see her happy, all of my affection and respect for her intensifies. Same with you, Pumpkin. I do whatever I can to make you happy because love, love is like... it makes me feel that the universe has an order to it, and that things can be good. It's a small price to pay."

I had been all of sixteen. You might think that this was not appropriate for a parent, but the fact is, my parents treated me like a kid until puberty, then they turned up the dial marked ADULT and started treating me like a little person. That meant that they stopped the bullshit you get in children's books and television shows where everything in life is happy. In the world of my parents, things were only happy when you handled the situation well, and most people were idiots who wouldn't do that, so most things were a wreck and of mediocre quality.

I haven't seen anything since to disabuse me of that notion.

Rule 4: Find the reason for any cost increase.

Our life began really well, and I was thoroughly in love, having gotten over "puppy love" and infatuation with a few hopeless boyfriends. I came to our wedding bed a virgin, but not inexperienced, since I learned that the most efficient way to silence a troublesome male was oral sex, and I could basically save myself hours of time and pain with a few minutes of having my hair in a ponytail.

I may be my father's daughter, but even more, I'm an attentive student. I couldn't escape those supply/demand curves. The more something is wanted, the more valuable it becomes; the more of it there is, the less it is wanted. Therefore, if you slut around, you reduce your value, and you're not going to get one of the few guys who have the tripartite of desire: looks, brains, and a god soul. My dating was sporadic and picky, and unless I thought there was a chance of going further, he never got anything but some groping and a blowie.

With Ralph, I really worked the poor boy over. I didn't ask him out on a date; I asked him to help me throw a party for senior staff. He was still groggy and incoherent, freshly showered with that adorable wet rat look that men get when they're out of their depth, when I picked him up in my Kia (bought for 10% off list, which works out fine for the dealer because automakers pay the dealers kickback per unit sold, so they still make a handsome profit even on heavily discounted sales) and roared off to Costco.

You might ask, why would you take a man to Costco? The place is infuriating with long lines, ugly as sin, and filled with random stuff that no one should buy. But people love the experience, and it helps you take the gauge of people. Do they fall for the bad deals that look good simply because you get three liters of olive oil even though it's the same per-ounce price as Kroger or Albertsons? Can they resist the gadgets, junk food, and fads that people post on Pinterest and Instagram?

One of my professors could work up a sweat talking about Costco. They make very little money on margins, and all their money from selling memberships, but their main gig is entertainment. They offer you a random selection of products, and people love to forage, so we all pick through the mountains of consumer excess and end up buying a 5,000 rpm blender we don't need, then tossing it when we finally figure out, way too late, that we never needed it.

It's a great place to test a potential boyfriend. Ralph passed the test, mainly by being able to ignore all the stuff around him and focus on our interaction together. He helped me get steak meat and vegetables for shish-ka-bob, a dozen dips and fancy cauliflower chips that tasted almost like the real thing, and a couple cases of beer. I carted Ralph and the food to the home of a fellow aspiring executive, we threw a heck of a picnic, and then I helped Ralph clean up. "Movie?" I asked, bright and chipper.