The Gift

Painting by Clara Tomaz

This past weekend, friends of ours visited from Chicago. We have been in Minnesota for three years now, and although we are separated by distance, the bonds of friendship have grown stronger with many of our Chicago friends. That’s been an unexpected blessing of this move.

My visiting friend Clara and I went exploring at Minnehaha Falls, a place of great natural beauty along the edge of the Mississippi River. In addition to being fun to say, Minnehaha Regional Park is gloriously beautiful. The grounds are shaded by a canopy of gorgeous towering trees and the park features a massive shelter with an eatery and ice cream shop. It’s like a miniature Niagara Falls in the middle of the city. Clara and I followed the long staircase alongside the falls down to the creek and followed it until we reached to a beach (flooded) at the point where Minnehaha Creek meets the mighty Mississippi.

As we walked, we talked. Clara, a filmmaker and painter, is one of few visual artist friends I have. Because I’ve never thought of myself as an artist, I struggle with the competing demands of making a living through paying work and my art. (See, it feels odd or even pretentious to write “my art”). Because while I am creative, I also like being paid. It’s important for your self-esteem to be paid for your work. I am proud that throughout my life, I have been able to make a living by writing, whether that was as a journalist or in public relations, or as a freelance writer and author. But I’ve always sought a balance between paying work and creative work, in some phases of my life more successfully than in others. I currently work as a consultant doing content for a financial services company and I love it. My colleagues are top-notch and it’s a really great place to work. I value that and am hugely grateful for the opportunity. Because I get grouchy and out of sorts if I don’t balance that paying work with work on my own writing, I always feel like I’m walking a tightrope to who knows where. I was sharing that ongoing inner balancing act with Clara. Doing this Prince project makes no sense, really. Any logical person would tell me to put all of my energy into my paying work. Don’t we want to pay off our cars and mortgage? Don’t we want to sock away more money for retirement? Well then, I should be putting all my energy into paying work while I can.

As I vocalized this in a rambling, stream-of-consciousness way to Clara, she stopped me.

“Art doesn’t make sense,” Clara said in a matter-of-fact way, adding, “that’s not its purpose.”

In a place of honor on our mantel

Art doesn’t make sense. It shouldn’t. Art is a gift, like the encaustic painting that Clara gifted me this weekend. It means more to me than anything because it’s a recognition that she sees me. And she sees Living Like Prince as a worthy endeavor, simply because it is an expression of an idea of how humanity can live in a way that’s more expansive. The artist in Clara recognizes the artist in me. The artist in me recognizes the artist in Prince. And the chain goes on and on and on, creating more beauty and touching more souls as it grows.

Where the Shadow Self Lives

The imposing James M. Castle home in Stillwater, MN, built in 1872. See more:

This is the house where I imagine that my alter ego Aurora lives. Isn’t it sheer Gothic Revival perfection?

You could come over and Aurora would serve you an absinthe cocktail on the front porch.

Knowing Aurora, she might even slide down the banister on her way to greet you.

Come into my parlor. You look so handsome in that sweater; is it cashmere? Since there’s a spring chill in the air, when twilight descends, you can make a fire, and I’ll light the candles on the candelabra.

At first glance, I felt a kind of revulsion at this house (the fact that there are more deer heads and a bearskin rug complete with the bear’s head had something to do with that). Like the Addams Family house, there’s an atmosphere that feels slightly imposing and yes, even sinister. The architecture is in stark contrast to the light airiness of the house where my family currently lives, which features a 1980s design of soaring ceilings and two-story windows. This home feels equal parts strange and beautiful. I couldn’t stop looking at the photos.

In 1872, the year the house was built, Mark Twain was writing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (the book would be published in 1876). The horrific and bloody Civil War had come to a close in 1865. The city of Chicago had been destroyed by fire a year earlier, in 1871. It seems that the owner, James Castle, was ballsy enough to want to build a gigantic wooden house despite the threat of fire. I think Aurora and James Castle would have gotten along swimmingly.

If you were born in 1872, your life expectancy was 38 years. Life was short, and full of sorrow. Some one-third to one-half of infants didn’t live to age five. If you managed to survive to see age 10, your life expectancy rose to 48 years — that’s how perilous infancy and young childhood was.

Overcrowding, harsh climate, extreme poverty and diseases from measles to whooping cough all took their toll. The design of this house acknowledges that this was a hard world. I love that it embraces the shadow side of life, because the shadow side will be heard.

I’m fascinated by the portraits with heavy frames and the ornate, carved Victorian furniture. It’s as if this owner decided to zig when everyone else is zagging. This house could serve as an antidote to the “open concept” home layout that every single person looking for a house on HGTV seems to request without fail. By inhabiting a house that expresses the shadow side so eloquently, I can imagine that it would be easier to be light ourselves. We’ve lost something important when we surround ourselves exclusively with the light and bright. In our age, positivity is praised and darkness is banished. “Don’t be so negative!” is something I myself have said on too many occasions. But if you shoo negativity away, it doesn’t disappear. It simply moves to a dark corner.

I think I’ll clean out some of the dark corners this weekend by watching a Stephen King movie … or two, for good measure.

The Talisman and the Tool

Weekends are filled with errands — that’s normal. But this weekend, I had a less-than-normal mission on my to-do list.

“Find totem,” the item read. That’s because, to activate an alter ego, many performers and athletes use a totem that they wear or carry. In Prince’s case, it seemed he had a lot of totems over the years. You could argue that when he zipped up on his four-inch heeled, pointy-toed booties, that was a totem that turned him into “Prince.” Or perhaps it was his guitar. But I also tend to think that a cane, and sometimes a wand, was one of his key totems. And he used a cane throughout his career, from the glitter cane he played with during the Lovesexy tour, to the silver cane he carried in the last years of his life.

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Here’s Prince with the silver cane, in 2014 at the Paris Open.

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Here he is in the 90s.

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At the Grammys in 2015.

However tempting it was to consider striding around Chanhassen with a glitter cane or waving it out the car window at interlopers in the school pick-up line, I decided a ring would be the best totem. It’s easy to slip on to become Aurora, and slip off to be me again, and easy to keep in a pocket. When I found this one at the mall, I knew it was the one. It reminded me of a third eye ring that Prince wore in a portrait that hangs in Studio B at Paisley Park.

And next, because I’ve had a fountain pen for decades and only recently got some new ink for it, I decided that Aurora should have this fountain pen as her tool — just as Prince had his guitar.

With Aurora’s personality set, her totems at the ready, I’m ready to take her out for a spin in the world this week.

In Which I Dub My Alter Ego “Aurora”

Last month, I wrote about giving yourself a Prince name. Since I published that post on a Friday and I’m all about celebrating Fridays, I decided it would be fun to offer myself as a Random Prince Name Generator for the day so that people could share their names and get a Prince name.

We wound up having a ridiculous amount of fun on Facebook that day. People shared names and I spewed out Prince-ified names in return. All totalled, I came up with about 35 Prince names. Whew! Here are a couple of highlights:

What I didn’t realize when playing the role of Prince Name Generator was that I would actually need a name for an alter ego the very next month. And in celebrating the fun of Friday and dubbing others with Prince names, I had inadvertently stumbled upon my alter ego: Aurora.

Aurora was birthed because it popped up when I plugged “Laura” into a “rapper name generator.” My mind loved that it rhymed with “Laura” and felt like it was in the realm of my given name while also having a je ne sais quoi that’s so essential to Living Like Prince. Emotionally, “Aurora” triggered a rush of childhood fantasies and dreams. When I heard the word “Aurora,” I heard a female narrator in my head say, “Aurora, which means `Dawn.'” followed by a tinkle of bells, which was a prompt to turn a page of a book. Unbelievably, I realized I had unearthed a voice embedded deep in my brain, thanks to a “Sleeping Beauty” record from Disney that I listened to incessantly as a little girl. If I’d given birth to daughters and not sons, the fact that Sleeping Beauty’s name was Princess Aurora would likely have been top of mind. As a boy mom, I was amused that my brain was able to retrieve that long-forgotten piece of data. Because I’m living like Prince, I then made the connection to the original fairy tale, where Princess Aurora sleeps 100 years until being awakened by the prince’s kiss. Prince? “Kiss?” Prince used the phrase “Welcome 2 the Dawn” on the back of many of his albums. Plus, Prince was a cosmic individual, and “Aurora” has a cosmic feel to it. “Aurora” it was.

Next up, I made a list of Aurora’s qualities, because how can I embody an alter ego if I don’t know who she is?

Hmmmm … why is it that Aurora’s traits are the ones I want to cultivate in myself?

According to my manual for Alter Ego living, The Alter Ego Effect, my next step should be to find a totem. When I put on the totem or carry it onto the “field of play” (which can be an office, a club, a restaurant — wherever your alter ego needs to operate), I will be transformed into Aurora. The totem can be anything you wear or can carry. Most anything can qualify, as long as it has significance to you. It could be a bracelet you snap on, or a ring, a pair of sunglasses, a hat, a pair of shoes, a necklace or … a cane. Wonder who used that totem? Guess I’ve got my homework cut out for me this weekend.

Why You Need to Identify with a Superhero

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Wearing the mask of a superhero can give you the distance you need between your ordinary self and the self you aspire to be.

As mom of two little boys, I found myself on a first-name basis with a lot of superheroes (also, construction equipment, knowledge that comes in handy whenever I need to complain about a front-end loader blocking the road during road construction season in Minnesota). On any given day, I might walk into the family room to find Superman and Spiderman jumping off the couch with plastic swords while dueling with imaginary bad guys. Or perhaps I would be greeted by Batman (never Robin) and the Incredible Hulk who would instruct me to take cover behind a chair while they guarded me against marauding bad guys.

The boys had costumes with padded muscles in the arms and shoulders. They had masks, plastic swords, capes, and shields. They had a Fisher-Price Batcave with bat motorcycles and batmobiles galore. They were too young to watch many of the superhero movies that have a dark and violent side, but they loved superheroes. As kids, they were lorded over by adults all day long. As superheroes, they were in control. They had power. The act of exploring their superhero alter egos was a very healthy thing when it came to embodying the very best qualities of these characters, from bravery to persistence.

Prince, by his own account, was a childhood fan of Batman. I can imagine him running around the Northside neighborhood as the Caped Crusader. And the deep affinity for Batman continued throughout his life. But it seems that Batman was character that resonated with him until the end of his life. In his final shows at Paisley Park in January 2016 as part of the Piano and a Microphone tour, Prince took the audience on an autobiographical tour, including the theme from Batman. This is how Rolling Stone’s review published Jan. 22, 2016 described the moment:

“His voice was doused in heavy echo as he expressed the dreams and doubts of a child who sneaks down without permission to play his father’s piano. “I can’t play piano like my dad. How does dad do that?” he wondered, while attempting improvisations that, at one point, suggested Thelonious Monk teaching himself the theme to Batman.”

As an adult, Prince jumped at the opportunity to create the soundtrack to the blockbuster Batman film in 1989 by director Tim Burton. He set aside work on the Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic album and revamped some of the songs intended for that album to songs for the soundtrack. He seemed to revel in the opportunity to apply his skills to a movie based on a childhood hero.

It turns out that identifying with a superhero has benefits beyond hit records. Superheroes can be a way to create a healthy distance between who you are and the characteristics you want to embody. Identifying with a superhero can help you do hard things, and stay calm and cool in challenging situations. I never identified with a superhero, but I loved characters in literature, such a Jo March in Little Women. I loved Jo because she was a writer and reading while eating apples in a garret sounded right up my alley. I wasn’t a tomboy like Jo — I was much more of a girlie girl like her sister Amy. But Jo was spirited, and she loved horses and wanted to be a writer, and I wanted to be more spirited and be dedicated to writing, and I loved horses, too. I wonder if the fact that Jo wound up marrying a German professor who was much older might have subliminally influenced me to become a language major in college and also marry an older man. I also loved that she had two boys and reveled in being a boy mom. I thought I’d like to have boys, and when I became a mom to two boys, I thought of Jo March and her enjoyment of her boys. Ha! Be careful who you identify with! Jo’s inspiration made me see what I could be, and the qualities I wanted to embody, and in some very small ways, I did become Jo March.

Announcing March’s Theme

Artwork by the talented Erika Peterson (Instagram and Twitter: @erikastrada)

February had me Dressing the Part each day — no jeans, no loungewear before 6 p.m., and wearing a mirror heart on my wrist, the symbol I chose for myself. IT WAS A WORKOUT! Today is March 1 and you can bet I will be back in jeans. I didn’t realize how much I wore denim until I had to go without it for a month (and it happened to be an awfully cold month full of snow — still, she persisted!).

March can be a trying month in Minnesota. It’s too early for trees to bud, but the snow tends to be on its way out (we can only hope). As the snow melts, it turns dirty and slushy, and the skies can be gray an awful lot of the time. Living Like a Prince should find me decamping to Los Angeles for a month, which is exactly what Prince would have done. Alas! My reality includes kids in school and a budget, so I’ve got to get creative.

To combat the winter blah’s, I have chosen “Communicating with Color” as March’s theme. This month will find me exploring all the colors in the spectrum and how Prince used them to communicate. Did Prince “hear” colors? What emotions did he evoke through his use of color? And what did he mean by using those kaleidoscope backdrops to his last “Piano and a Microphone” tour?

Stay tuned for what promises to be the most colorful month yet!

Prince’s Fiercest Decision

In February I’ve been focused on dressing the part, but during this final week of the month, I want to explore the second aspect of the challenge — the choice of a symbol to represent oneself and all the questions about identity and naming that it raises.

Back in the year 1993, Prince made a creative and daring choice: He changed his name to what became known as the Love Symbol. At that time, I was in the midst of a New York City public relations career and can recall cringing on Prince’s behalf as he became the object of ridicule in the midst of what was in my perception a PR fiasco.

Today, I see the decision Prince announced on his 35th birthday on June 7, 1993, to release the name “Prince” and adopt an unpronounceable symbol as his name and identity, as the most extraordinary decision in a career that never followed convention. Can you name another person in history who has adopted an unpronounceable symbol as a name? I have wracked my brain and have come up short. Once again, Prince did what felt good to him without caring about other people’s judgment. Now I know Prince didn’t need me to feel embarrassed for him. (And to think I celebrated my own 35th birthday by throwing a party at a wine bar … seems mundane in comparison). Prince’s adoption of the Love Symbol created an aura of uniqueness around him that few artists have been able to achieve.

When Prince shared the news of his impending announcement with his public relations consultant, Karen Lee, she was prescient enough to tell Prince that journalists wouldn’t know how to refer to him if his name was a symbol that didn’t appear on a keyboard.

“What if they took middle C off the piano keyboard?” she asked him. Left to their own devices, journalists would make up something, she told Prince.

Prince dismissed her warnings, declaring that he would change every keyboard in America (and I guess, by extension, the world). In the end, Lee was proven correct. The LA Times was the first to give him a nickname, and other journalists followed suit. Prince’s public image fell off a cliff as he became the brunt of countless jokes and nicknames, with “Symbolina” from long-time Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist C.J. being only one of many.

The fact that Prince took that decision 15 years into his career, at a stage when many stars would be kicking back and enjoying the ride, is all the more striking. Prince, intense as ever, was focused on being an avant-garde performer and not an oldies act. Never one to accept convention, the Artist Formerly Known As Prince continued to make shocking and incomprehensible statements to reporters such as “music should be free.” Free? In 1993, the only way you could imagine getting music for free was: a) shoplifting at Tower Records or b) having someone burn a CD for you. Prince was not only challenging our concept of identity, but also actively challenging the idea of how music was released and how we consumed it.

A cynical world questioned whether the name change was nothing more than a publicity stunt. As it turns out, it was much more than that. The Love Symbol became part of a master plan.

Prince’s Principles — What Are They?

If you were asked to list the principles that defined Prince’s life and work, what would you say?

I’ve been considering this as I look toward the third month of The Year of Living Like a Prince and wondering what might lie ahead.

Here’s what comes to mind when I consider Prince:

Health nut — Prince could be quite particular about his diet and explored being a vegan and vegetarian, along with fasting.

Hard work — The man could and would create for 20 hours a day. Enough said.

Focus — Prince set up his life to be focused on his music, including building Paisley Park, which not only protected him from the public at the height of his fame, but offered a self-contained universe for creating his music from start to finish.

Breaking paradigms — Prince was a breakthrough artist who cared nothing for rules. Nothing he did was expected, from the way he dressed, to his lyrics and musical styles.

Sustainability — Prince’s music has sustained over many years and shows little sign of abating.

There are many, many more — what would you add to this list?

When Did You First Learn the Value of Style?

My grandma, mom and I on Easter Sunday 1967

This month, I’m voluntarily taking on the challenge to dress up daily — but how did I feel about dressing the part back when I was a toddler? I marvel at the fact that my mother had me all dressed up in white gloves and stockings with a knitted yellow scarf on my head (Mom tells me that my great-grandmother, a Swede, knitted these for me) — and as the cherry on the sundae, a yellow corsage pinned to my lapel. Whether or not I enjoyed dressing up is unclear as I have no memory of this moment, but what is clear is that I seem to think the handbag handle is designed for chewing.

While I may not have valued style back then, I certainly have come to appreciate it as an adult. My in-depth scientific research has unearthed a telling moment in Prince’s own fashion evolution — perhaps one of the first moments that demonstrated Prince’s own understanding of the value of style.

In Owen Husney’s memoir, Famous People Who’ve Met Me, he writes of the day when Prince unboxed his first album, For You. It happens to coincide with the moment when Husney notices that Prince’s style has begun to gel. Husney writes:

“I couldn’t help but notice the up-tick in Prince’s appearance when he walked into my office … Now his emerging look was less casual, augmented by a trimmed fro, black leather jacket, a pullover white V-neck linen shirt, dress pants, and high-heeled boots … I was opening a square box that was just delivered via UPS. It had a big WB logo on the side and was marked in block letters “Promo Copy – Not For Sale BSK-3150.” “Do you want the honors?” I said as soon as the box was pried open. “Sure” came Prince’s one word reply. He reached in and produced a single vinyl album from the box of twenty-five. On the top it said “PRINCE-FOR YOU.” … Prince then reached in the album jacket and pulled out the dust cover. “Let’s see if they got it right” he said, examining the superimposed shot of him naked on a bed, a guitar covering his private parts. “It’s perfect.”‘

Was it a coincidence that Prince stepped up his style at the same moment that his first album was released? I think not. But while this particular style worked during the For You era, Prince wasn’t married to it. By the time Allen Beaulieu photographed Prince for the cover of his next album, Dirty Mind, Prince taken his wardrobe game in a vastly different direction. He sported straight, spiky hair and wore a knotted red bandana around his neck, combined with a studded purple trench coat, a fedora and “rude boy” pin on the lapel (and not much else). Dirty Mind was heavy on new wave and punk elements and Prince dressed the part.

How to Build Something Substantial

Fire hydrant outside of Paisley Park.

Did you make a New Year’s resolution? If you did, chances are good that you’ve abandoned it by now, because 80% of resolutions fail by February. But if you managed to beat the odds and keep your resolution going, you might already be seeing the benefits of consistency and experience the subtle but powerful way that success compounds.

While I may not have achieved the creative output of Prince, I’m publishing a blog post every day and that feels like a brisk pace. It feels particularly brisk on a Sunday evening when I realize I don’t have enough posts to fill the coming week! Still, if I manage to keep up this pace for a year, I will have built something substantial. I am accumulating 400 words per blog post, five days a week, for 52 weeks. That comes to a grand total of 104,000 words, or precisely one 400-page book.

If I was a financially minded person, I’d make some comment about the time value of money here. My husband, a CPA and CFP, likes to remind me of the time value of money when I want to spend and he wants to save. Money, like the written word, also compounds over time.

While cranking out blog posts like a veritable content machine, I’ve continued to do Alternate Day Fasting, January’s challenge. (That means I’m eating 500 calories one day and whatever I want the next). Some days I mess up on my fasting days and eat too much, and sometimes on my eating days I eat too much sugar and get annoyed at myself (not to mention that I pay a steep price the next day because too much sugar on an eating day makes me hungrier on a fasting day). But so what? I pick myself up and try again. And I am seeing slow but incremental weight loss, in addition to feeling light and strong on fasting days. Surprisingly, the initial feeling of constant hunger dissipated and now that I have reached 51 days of Alternate Day Fasting I am over my habit of snacking and no longer suffer from cravings. The compounded effects of Alternate Day Fasting are liberating.

On top of those two endeavors, February saw me add a third ball to the juggling act in the form of dressing up daily. Today is a snow day and the kids are home from school but instead of cozying up in sweats, I’m wearing a sweater dress, tall boots and my beloved mirror heart bracelet, and I took a photo of it for posterity, which I do daily. While getting dressed up daily takes effort, I am motivated by the idea that at the end of the month, I will have photographed 28 outfits that I assembled from what was already hanging in my closet. I’ll have a handy reference guide when I don’t know what to wear.

What you do each day matters and builds on the rest.