Zen and the art of staying married to a compulsive entrepreneur.
Finally, Melody Kean Haller and her husband, Paul, were finished remodeling their San Francisco Victorian home, a $250,000 project that stripped the couple and their two children of a kitchen and privacy for nine months. In one of their first moments of rest together, they sank into their living- room couch, exhausted and relieved. At which point Melody, founder and president of a public-relations firm, gazed out the window and announced that the deck needed to be replaced and the upstairs tenant's quarters sure could stand a remodeling. And, you know, a new home would be good.
"She didn't see the contradiction," says Paul, 54, a Zen Buddhist priest with a soft Irish brogue. "When you're looking out the window and seeing what's out there, you're not looking at this and seeing it for what it is. That's the kind of tension there is between us."
Rather than buying that new home, the 50-year-old entrepreneur, who had made millions during the Internet boom, decided she wanted land in the country -- lots of it. Paul knew of some landowners who'd been trying to sell their 160-acre retreat center, up north in Mendocino County. Maybe the place could be both a good business and a family getaway. Great, said Melody. And roughly 10 minutes into her tour of the oak-tree-studded land -- just as she was looking over the flower garden but before she'd even spotted the 20 run-down cabins -- she proclaimed she'd buy the property. Its garden was enough. The rest of it? Pure potential. And what could be better than that?
The Hallers bought the property last year for $2.5 million and since then have poured another $1.5 million into improvements. "The average person would think about it, plan it, strategize it. Melody just goes, 'Yeah, let's do it," says Paul.
Days before they opened the property, called Shenoa Springs, to group retreats, the Hallers brainstormed about what kind of marketing might help them turn Shenoa into a profitable business. Paul, taking his typically methodical approach, suggested they contact some yoga groups during the next few days.
Next few days? "Melody just took out the San Francisco yellow pages and said, 'I have two hours right now. Let's do it," Paul recalls. "She called every group in the book, explaining what we've got and inviting them to come up as a guest for a night to check it out." He pauses. "Melody is not easily stopped, you know. Melody is the archetype of an entrepreneur. And there's something compelling, alluring about that, this sort of engagement in life. Of course, engagement has its successes and failures. Once you start to engage, you're susceptible to whatever happens. You're no longer in control. You call up 200 yoga groups, and they love you, or they hate you and say, 'Go away. You're bothering me.' You have to deal with their response. You expose yourself."
Melody, though, has no qualms about such exposure -- about not being in control -- because she's confident in her ability to improvise and execute. "To me, to get from here to there you have to go through the mush in the middle," she says, "whereas with Paul, what's on the other end isn't as important to him."
Twenty-one years into their marriage, Paul is still mystified by his wife's "restless and relentless" spirit. "Sometimes I wonder what it'd be like being with someone who's similar to me, not totally different. But I'm not, so I guess that answers the question," he says.
From Melody's viewpoint, she isn't restless, just practical and preemptively active. "For him, what I have is gratuitous restlessness. But to me, I see a need he doesn't see," she says. "I see the problem and see the solution -- then I can't not see the problem and the solution together constantly thereafter, whereas Paul can be like, 'Yeah, OK, whatever....' I simply feel I'm the improver. I read that phrase once in a Victorian novel -- an 'improver.' It fits me."
"Sometimes I wonder what it'd be like being with someone who's similar to me, not totally different."
This marriage of a monk who strives to accept what is and an entrepreneur who constantly seeks to reinvent and improve might contain more built-in conflict than the average relationship. But clearly, even for spouses with more commonplace, material inclinations than Paul Haller has, the life and mind-set of a company builder can feel alien. Or much worse than alien. Among the dozens of entrepreneurs and their mates interviewed during the background reporting for this story, several wouldn't publicly discuss their relationship other than to say that the negative impact that entrepreneurship has had on marital relations far outweighs the beneficial effects.
Paul marvels that his wife has continued to reinvent herself and her surroundings. He marvels at her urge to thrive in rocky terrain. When they met some 23 years ago, they were wide-eyed students living at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, tucked deep in the mountains east of Carmel, Calif. They fell in love, in silence, during a 3-month retreat. They got married 18 months later.
When they moved to San Francisco, in 1982, Melody was about to deliver their second child and the couple had about $80 between them, with prospects of earning a stipend of $125 a month while Paul worked at the Zen Center. Melody, whose own family was left destitute after her father died, when she was 17, feared that she and Paul couldn't raise their two children properly in such an expensive city on his meager stipend. But rather than pushing her husband, a hydraulic engineer by training, to shed his monk identity and get a job in his profession, Melody accepted that Paul was as passionately devoted to the Zen practice as he was to anything. "Besides, I thought if I made him change, I wasn't sure if I'd love that person I'd changed him to be," she says. "And I was never completely sure if what I should do was push him to get a job, because I wasn't sure if that would destabilize our whole relationship."
Paul never questioned his life path. "What I wanted to do with the Zen Center factored in as much as family. The two in my mind were totally merged," he says. Like Melody, Paul grew up poor -- in a large family in Belfast, Northern Ireland. But he was accustomed to a government that provided free health care and education to its residents. He figured that somehow they'd have enough in the States as well. "To me," he says, "expressing dharma in my life is primary, and everything else evolves around that. I pretty much assume that the material world will figure itself out. And so far it has."
Melody harbors no such assumptions. She was determined not to leave her children stranded as she was when her father died and she had to drop out of college to work for a living. Once her youngest child could be placed in day care part-time, in 1983, she landed jobs in publishing and public relations. In 1991 she founded a PR firm, then called Niehaus Ryan Haller Public Relations Inc., with two partners. Within two years she had helped grow the company to 42 employees and put NRH on the map as one of the most successful and influential Internet PR firms in the country. But a personality clash with her two partners erupted into a legal battle and resulted in her reluctant departure.
The experience left her feeling shaken and betrayed. But instead of resting on her settlement from the dispute (neither she nor her former partners will discuss the terms of the settlement), she began driving through downtown San Francisco searching for an office building where she could create a new PR firm. She has been running that firm, Antenna Group Inc., ever since. "She finds a place and builds something out of nothing, just like that," says Paul. "It's that ability to step out.... Melody thought that if you wait until you're really sure what you're doing, it's already too late. That's the mantra of Internet strategy. You have to do it now because timeliness is more important than thoroughness. That's almost antithetical to Zen practice."
It's been hard for Paul to relate to his wife's passionate engagement in the peaks and valleys of the entrepreneurial life. The most difficult point was watching and supporting Melody emotionally during her downfall at NRH and her struggle to regain respect and success in the take-no-prisoners world of high-tech business. Paul suggested to Melody that she start a nursery with the NRH settlement, given her love for plants. "I see how the politicking and power games of that world are experienced by her in a painful way," says Paul. "So part of my response is 'Don't do it. What does it matter whether or not you have prestige in the computer world, really?' We have a clash of styles, sure. I sometimes think, 'Why don't we do it my way?"
Sometimes they do. Melody says Paul provides a positive counterbalance when she gets swept up in the world of professional ladder climbing. "What's great about Paul, and not so great about me, is that I'm often thinking about appearances, the visual reality, the logical, structural, material world, and career dynamics. Paul is thinking about the reality, the connection between himself and his students, and the process of helping people grow into more insightful beings in this life," she says during a break from landscape-planning meetings at their Shenoa retreat.
"If I sit there and weigh the two, I can say, 'But you know, he's right. What he's focusing on is what really matters, not all this material stuff.' That's what makes me feel like, 'OK, get over it, Melody. You're not going to plant those trees this year, so stop it."
For all his talk about simple living and shunning material pursuits, Paul seems conflicted regarding money, specifically his own wealth by osmosis. Melody's PR firm's investments and the Hallers' own investments in Internet start-ups turned the couple into multimillionaires, although most of their paper fortunes have evaporated, and what's left is tied up in Shenoa and Antenna Group. On one hand, Paul cares little about material possessions and appearances. (To him, the $250,000 house remodeling was merely an inconvenience, and only after repeated pleas from his wife did he agree to stop driving his 14-year-old Nissan Sentra.) If anything, his newfound wealth has made him feel at times that he has breached a social contract of voluntary simplicity and equality at the Zen Center. Despite that antimaterialist stance, however, Paul says, there's "an ongoing debate about how we relate and make decisions around our money and assets." The money that Melody has made, he believes, isn't just Melody's. "We've had to do a lot of negotiating around that, to put it nicely," Paul says.
Melody is more forthcoming on the issue, saying that money has been the subject of major power struggles between them. "Paul never felt like it was my money or his money. It's always been our money," she says. "There's no question about it: we're both very strong, and there's a power struggle." Like many long-term couples, they've had their share of troubles, the lowest point being a brief separation several years ago.
Melody has decided that fighting over who controls the money and other assets isn't worth it, when in the end she knows that Paul is the person she wants to be with and the one who has given her and her children so much love and emotional support over the years. "You can't put a price tag on that," she says.
For now, their power struggles seem to have subsided as they work together -- as business partners for the first time -- building Shenoa into a profitable retreat business and a vacation refuge for their family. Melody hopes eventually to back away somewhat from her PR business so she can live and work at least half-time at Shenoa. But for now, she's running her business and her life on all cylinders, prospecting for new clients at Antenna Group while overseeing the work at Shenoa.
With alternating awe and bemusement, Paul watches as his entrepreneur wife multitasks, plunging herself into the center of whatever she touches -- creating, re-creating, changing, improving. "She must be at the nexus of a creative, dynamic event. I'm hoping that the next [event] will be about transforming, say, a landscape," he says. "I'm still holding this fond hope that this, Shenoa, can be it, a 25-year project." He means the last project, during which life "can get back to business as usual."
"But what I've discovered," he says, sounding wistful, "is that for an entrepreneur, business as usual is like death."
Susan Moran is a freelance writer in Boulder, Colo.
Copyright © 2001 Susan Moran.
The Inc Life
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