Nothing Else Matters

house

Calling House.

“As long as you have your health, nothing else matters,” my grandfather, Pop, used to say. And probably your grandfather, too. I guess you need to reach a certain age (read: old) before you can fully appreciate the simple joy of waking up in the morning not feeling like complete and utter shit.

Apparently, I’m not yet at that age. In fact, I’ve been feeling kinda crappy these last few days. My neck and shoulders were aching, my stomach’s been upset and I’ve been generally dragging my ass. So, of course, I just assumed that I was about to have a heart attack.

Maybe it’s because my brother has been on my mind lately (btw, he’s out of the woods and back home, thanks for asking.) Or maybe it’s just that this is the way you’re supposed to feel when you’re in your mid-fifties. I blame WebMD. And fuck you too, Mayoclinic.com!

As you may have already gleaned, I’m a bit of a hypochondriac. When your mom kicks from breast cancer at 51 and your dad drops dead from a heart attack at 58 and you’ve already had testicular cancer, well, it’s kind of easy to connect the dots, la la la and merrily skip along to Pee Wee’s Big Playhouse in the sky.

So when I cough, my expert diagnosis is black lung disease and when I’m out of breath, I’m suffering from ALS and every mosquito bite is a carcinoma. Like most hypochondriacs, I’m quite adept at making myself sick.

In other words, I’ve become a Woody Allen cliché and not even from one of his earlier funny movies. If only House was still on, but since it’s not, I decided to call my sister. Patti isn’t a doctor nor does she play one on TV. When our mom died almost 30 years ago, Pat took on the role of family caretaker and has starred in our wacky sitcom ever since.

“I don’t wanna make you nuts or anything, particularly after Mike,” I began, “but I’ve been feeling like shit for the past couple of days, and thought I’d call you for a consultation before I go to the emergency room.”

“Larry, do you remember a million years ago when you thought you had leukemia?” she reminded me, “because you had a few brown freckles you had never noticed before? You actually looked it up in a medical book!”

“Guilty!”

“So what’s the matter?” she asked and I ran down all of my symptoms just like I had entered them on WebMD Symptom Checker.

“First of all, stay off the Internet when you think you may be sick. It’ll just drive you crazy,” she said. “And second of all, you’re fine. You’re not having a heart attack.”

“Well, now if I do, I can blame you for not doing anything about it!”

“Fine,” she said. “Blame me!”

“You know, I just wanted to hear you say those words. I’m not even sure why exactly. I just needed to hear you say it, you know?”

“I know,” she said.

“Are you sure, though?”

“I’m sure.”

“Remember what Pop used to say?” I asked.

“Yep.”

“Boy, was he right!”

By a Nose

Story of his life.

My younger brother Mike is in the hospital in Las Vegas and doctors are clueless as to what’s wrong with him. He’s incoherent, agitated and doesn’t recognize our sister (who drove from Scottsdale to be with him) or even his own eight-year-old daughter. So far, all tests have come back negative.

He had a massive heart attack a few years ago (at age 50), has rampant diabetes, suffers from depression and has pretty much been living on borrowed time. My sister Patti and I always joked about him being indestructible, but we’re not joking now.

I take that back. Actually, we are. At first, Patti thought he might be faking the whole thing. Mike is a compulsive gambler and has had his share of ups and downs and lately there haven’t been too many ups. And him pulling the old “Vincent ‘The Chin’ Gigante-feigning-mental-illness-routine” is not entirely out of the realm of possibility.

The only theory that makes any sense to us right now is that maybe his diabetes has gotten so bad that it’s affecting the nerve endings in his brain and causing dementia, and that’s coming from the esteemed experts on the WebMD message boards.

My expert guess is that he’s just had enough. He’s talked about suicide before and his method just may be letting his health go to shit like this. Patti told me that she heard he was at the track last week and was on the verge of winning $250,000 in one of his crazy five-race parlays. His horse, like almost all of his horses, lost by a nose.

That’s the story of his life and maybe soon his death.

The Good News About Bad News

the fool

Everybody plays the fool.

I’m going to get a Tarot card and palm reading next week and I have to admit that I’m feeling a little apprehensive about it. As much as I’d like to know what the future has in store for me, I’m also okay with not seeing a Death Card any time soon, or hearing that my lifeline is shorter than Peter Dinklage. I’ve never done either of these things before because I’ve always pretty much lived in constant fear of getting bad news.

My heart will sometimes still skip a beat when my phone rings, which explains why I prefer texting. Strike that. I’ve gotten some pretty crappy texts too. This all goes back to a particularly rough period a few years ago when things seemed to be falling apart with my family. I was in a bad way, and if it wasn’t for my friends, I don’t know how I would’ve survived.

Come to think of it, this goes back even further than that to when I was four years old and things (holy déjà vu) seemed to be falling apart with my family. Cops busted into our house and arrested my father, and all I remember is that in both cases, I had nothing to hold on to.

Which is really what’s driving this whole spiritual quest thing for me – the fundamental need to know that everything is going to be all right and to somehow feel connected. I didn’t realize just how much Zach and I were incredibly alike until I wrote the paragraph above this one. “It’s kinda nice knowing you have something to hold on to when times are shitty,” he said, you may recall, when I asked him if he believed in God.

The good news is: I’m no longer scared of getting bad news. I’m not sure when the fear monster abated or if it’s a sign of maturity or if the meds finally kicked in, but these days I feel that I can deal with whatever comes my way. And God – if you’re listening – this should in no way be interpreted as a challenge.

Carlat Luck 2

Not so hidden treasure

Fortune hunting.

Zach and I went out to P.F. Chang’s the other night and after waiting for about an hour, we were finally seated in what looked like the best table in the house.

We ordered a bunch of appetizers and eyed several other dishes, including a group of hot, young women wearing ridiculously short skirts in the booth next to us. I don’t get to spend all that much time with Zach these days and had almost forgotten what a sweet, funny and amazing kid he is.

Add to that list: starving. You know you’re eating good food when there’s no talking at the table and Zach and I happily stuffed our faces in what seemed like deep space. Our silent revelry was soon interrupted by our waiter, who placed another order of dumplings on our table.

“Did you guys enjoy those dumplings?” he asked, pointing to our already demolished plates.

“Yeah, they were awesome!” we both answered in between bites.

“Well, they were vegetable and you guys asked for pork,” he said. “So here’s the correct order and, of course, it’s on the house.”

“Dad,” Zach said, smiling hard, “that’s Carlat luck.”

We both laughed and continued to shovel in spicy chicken and shrimp lo mein until we couldn’t breathe. You know you’ve eaten a lot of good food when it leaves you gasping for air.

We did, however, save just enough room for fortune cookies. Zach’s read: Endurance and persistence will be rewarded. We both agreed that this prophecy seemed pretty right on for a college student.

Mine was even more on the money:

Treasure what you have.

Carlat Luck

sundae

Good lick.

I was taking Zach back to school in Tampa a few days ago and as we were waiting to board our flight, I showed him this blog.

“That’s cool,” he said, glancing at it for a microsecond while checking Facebook on his iPhone.

“You know what?” I asked. “How about I interview you for it?”

“Cool,” he said, while texting with his girlfriend.

“You know, I don’t think I’ve ever asked you this question before,” I began, “which is really incredible and I have no idea what you’re gonna answer.”

“Nobody told me there was gonna be a test,” he cracked. “Okay, shoot.”

“Do you believe in God?”

“I don’t know if I’d call him God or anything,” he answered. “But yeah, I believe that there’s something bigger than us.”

“That’s interesting because you know your mom and I don’t believe, which is why we never forced Hebrew school on you,” I explained. “Why do you believe?”

“I don’t know, I just kinda do. Never really thought about it and can’t really explain it. It’s like I feel that we all need to believe in something, you know?” he said, warming to the subject. “It’s kinda nice knowing you have something to hold on to when times are shitty, and when you can’t always look to the people around you for help, that’s when you can turn to whatever it is you believe in.”

As he was talking, I couldn’t help but think that even though I’m somewhere between agnostic and atheist, Zach’s pretty much the best evidence I’ve ever seen of God’s existence.

“I definitely believe in karma, though,” he continued. “I think if you’re a good person, good shit will happen to you. My friends call it Carlat luck.”

“Gimme some examples.”

“Well, I remember going to Dairy Queen this one time and I forgot my wallet and told them that it was my birthday, and they gave me a free sundae. And like whenever I go to a concert, I somehow always manage to make my way to the front row,” he said. “And my roommate Matt says that it doesn’t make a difference who our new roommate will be and how he’ll definitely be cool ’cause I have Carlat luck.”

I’ve had Carlat luck too, I thought. My father did two stints in prison, my mother died from breast cancer when she was 51, I had testicular cancer when I was in my early thirties, I got divorced when I found out that my wife was having an affair…when it comes to luck, I’m right up there with Lou Gehrig.

Zach has a tattoo on his right shoulder that says “The World Is Yours” (from the Nas song), and underneath it is an illustration of a hand gripping the globe.

“Your tat really says it all, dude,” I told him.

“I know, right?”

“You really are a lucky guy.”

Zach smiled. “Oh”, he said, “and I also have a friendly face.”

And Then …

clock

My apartment’s heartbeat.

A few days later, Laura emailed me a report (30 pages long!) filled with detailed suggestions. I hung bells on a nine-inch, red ribbon from my doorknobs as well as 30mm Swarovski crystals in the living room and bathroom windows. I replaced the arty old photos of my kids with new, smiley-faced ones. I removed my wedding photo from the shelf. I went to a clockmaker and he got my clock working for the first time ever. And I have to tell you, its soothing tick-tock has become the heartbeat of my apartment.

And then…

Nothing.

Laura told me it might take a few weeks before I noticed any change. She emphasized that feng shui is 80 percent intention, 20 percent physical action. I was just hoping that it wasn’t 100 percent nonsense.

A few weeks passed. Then one morning I got a call from my ex-wife, who said she just got two offers on the house we had once shared. It had been on the market for months without a single bite.

That same afternoon, my younger son texted to tell me he’d just landed a gig as an intern at a hip-hop magazine.

And a few days later, I broke up with my girlfriend.

Coincidence? Maybe.

The only thing I know for sure is that the universe works in funny ways.

Going With the Flow

kung fu

Fu-ey.

During our initial consultation, Laura explained that feng shui, which translates as “wind-water,” is a 5,000-year-old Chinese art (and science) that aims to align you in a balanced and harmonious way with the energies of where you live and work. I paid close attention. Oh, did I happen to mention that Laura is young and beautiful?

I told her about my life, my kids, my girlfriend, my job and my cynicism about most things, including what she does for a living. I told her that I feel stuck and can’t seem to make any real change.

“Once you put some simple feng shui methods to work and infuse the changes you make with intention,” she said calmly, not unlike David Carradine in Kung Fu, “you will let go and feng shui will take off with a synchronicity of its own.”

As we toured my apartment, Laura noted that it had an interesting flow of energy. She took photos of each room and commented on how neat it was, which apparently plays right in to the discipline’s emphasis on de-cluttering and detoxing.

Then we sat down to discuss the bagua, a sort of treasure map for your life that addresses eight key areas such as relationships, health, wealth and career. Laura told me feng shui’s five elements — fire, earth, metal, water, wood — were manifestations of chi or “universal energy.” Each element is associated with a particular accent color, and it’s important to have a balance of all five in your home.

I smiled politely and nodded along.

For the next three hours, Laura schooled me in the methods of feng shui, and made countless suggestions — called “cures” — for every nook and cranny in my apartment. She recommended hanging bells from my front door to “ring in the money” and crystals in my bathroom to deflect “miscommunication of energy.” Apparently, the bathroom is a major drain on wealth and health, and it’s important to always keep the door closed, to say nothing of the seat down.

She made a few observations, however, that meant a lot to me. For instance, I have photographs of my two sons hanging all over my place, and Laura noticed how they’re not smiling in any of them. I had always thought they were beautiful shots and a little arty.

“These photos are for your own peace of mind and for when your sons come to visit,” she said. “If you change them, they’ll see themselves not looking sad, and this will help you all reconnect with happy moments.”

She then pointed to an antique schoolhouse clock hanging on my living room wall. “Feng shui isn’t too keen on clocks,” she noted. “Especially ones that don’t work.” She saw mine as a symbol of my feeling stuck, and I have to admit that gave me chills.

Laura urged me to pay attention to the smallest things and to be aware of the energy that they carry. She picked up a tiny curio with my wedding picture that was tucked away in a corner on a miniature shelf in the living room.

“How does it make you feel? Does it bother you to see it every time you walk through the front door? Has your girlfriend said anything about it?” she asked. “If you’ve ended or are in the process of ending a relationship, it’s important to let go of objects associated with the past.”

Before Laura split, she said we needed to perform a “space clearing” or “house blessing.” This meant combining my personal intentions (the stuff in the red envelopes) with her intentions for the consultation. She reminded me once more that nothing would change if I didn’t take physical actions. She took the first one, burning a stick of sage, which is used to clear out negative emotions and energy.

“Space clearings always bring the truth to the surface,” she said, quoting her mom. “While at the same time, when the sage burns, the smoke carries your true intentions to the universe.”

She then chanted what she called “the six true words” as she walked around my apartment. Every time she finished a blessing, it was my job to make a chime with two small steel bells, to enhance the blessing and send intentions to the universe. By now the universe, I thought, must be sick to death of hearing from me.

Getting Shui-ed

penelope cruz

Penelope Cruz Carlat.

The first thing you should know about me is that I don’t believe in any of that woo-woo, mumbo-jumbo, spiritual crap. And that goes double for organized religion. The last time I was in a synagogue was more than 40 years ago, when I was bar mitzvahed.

The second thing you should know is also my big secret: I’d really like to believe.

When I was young, I believed in all kinds of stuff. God, love, magic — whatever you were selling, I was buying. But later I turned into a cynic. Brutal disappointments convinced me there is no God, I divorced after 25 years of love and marriage, and magic turned out to be a bunch of stupid card tricks.

The thing is, when you get to be a certain age you begin to see the world the way it really is rather than the way you imagined it would be. Along with that realization comes the inevitable thunder of time running out, tick-freaking-tock, which for us non-believers is the scariest proposition of all. “My relationship with death remains the same — I’m strongly against it,” said Woody Allen.

Which is where that big-secret part comes in.

Recently it occurred to me that I had dismissed spirituality without really knowing anything about it. I found it easier to make a joke about, say, feng shui — the ancient Chinese blend of spirituality and home decorating — than to spend any time actually learning about it. This easy path has led me right down the road to nowhere. In fact, my girlfriend and I had a running joke about how she’s always asking the universe for things and the universe usually complies — while continuing to ignore my existence.

Determined to be heard, and to see if faith in my faithless world was even possible, I googled “feng shui manhattan.” And that’s how Laura Cerrano came into my life.

Laura is a feng shui consultant, who lives in Farmingdale, New York. When we spoke on the phone, she told me she’d learned everything she knows from her mother, Carole, who passed away two years ago. I told her about my skeptic’s journey and how I wanted to open my mind to all kinds of spiritual teachings and alternative healing, and Laura readily agreed to be my guide. My idea of feng shui, I explained, was fairly simple: She would come over to my apartment in Brooklyn, rearrange my furniture, and then I’d win the Powerball jackpot and marry Penelope Cruz.

“I’m pretty sure Penelope Cruz is already married,” Laura said. “And just placing objects won’t change things. You have to change your thoughts and take emotional, mental and physical action.”

Laura gave me one task to carry out before her visit. I was to buy 18 red envelopes (and I feel bad for those lonely Hallmark cards missing their mate in my local Rite Aid) and fill them with “my intentions” — written statements specifying what I want out of life, what I’m thankful for and what I’d like to change. The idea was a combination of giving thanks, that lame The Secret book and ordering room service from the universe.

Here’s some of what I wrote:

I’d like to stay healthy enough to play tennis until I’m a very, very old man.

I want my sons to stay healthy, be successful and enjoy what they do for a living.

I’d like to have enough money to do the things I’ve always wanted to do — like travel around the world.

I’d like to be with a woman who loves me for who I am and for me to love her the same way.

I’d like to remain friends with my ex-wife.

I’d like to wake up in the morning and feel excited about the day.

If feng shui can get the universe to cough up any of these things, then count me the hell in.

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