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Dancing despite the owl

Published Sep. 9, 2005

Hooo hooo ahooo. Hooo hooo ahooo-ah.

Sprawled in my tent at Paynes Prairie State Preserve in North Florida, I listen to the cry of a barred owl.

Hearing an owl, some people delight in warm, Disneyesque feelings about nature. When I hear an owl, I hear a banshee. Often what follows the cry of an owl is the shriek of a rabbit grown careless _ or old.

I would like to run after breakfast, but my hip is sore. Arthritis, my doctor says, a bad case. We will try over-the-counter drugs first, but a hip replacement may be in my future. I'd love to do some birding _ the sandhill cranes have arrived on the prairie _ but I look at the world through dirty windows. Cataracts, says my ophthalmologist, pretty bad ones. I'll need surgery.

I am only 51.

Like a rabbit, I am starting to look over my shoulder for owls.

Escaping the curse

Camping by myself is meditation. I focus on setting up the tent, arranging the sleeping bag, building a campfire. Sit, shut eyes, breathe.

The natural world eventually enters the senses. I listen to the creak of the treetops and the hammering of a pileated woodpecker hunting for a beetle. Beetles invade the pines and eat the pulp just under the bark. If enough beetles dig in and the pine is weak from age or storm, it will die.

Sometimes I ride my bike down the Pinellas Trail to the veterans' graveyard at Bay Pines to visit my dad, who is buried under a slash pine. A lover of the outdoors, he would be honored that his remains fertilize a pine that one day might feed bark beetles that may become sustenance for woodpeckers.

He liked fishing and playing the piano and watching baseball. He worked too hard at an unsatisfying job to make the most modest of livings. He retired one September; the following January, he learned he was terminally ill and sank into a depression in some ways as horrifying as the leukemia. Toward the end, he wept whenever he saw me and my children, knowing he was not going to be around to see how we turned out.

I have an unfortunate tendency to brood about mortality, too. Thanks to Adam and Eve, knowledge of death is the curse of our species. Do rabbits worry about owls? Most likely no. Living in the moment, rabbits focus on eating, sleeping, reproducing and staying warm _ not a bad life, actually.

The philosopher George Santayana once said: "There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval."

No surrender

I have brought my bike to Paynes Prairie. I will be damned if I'll give up a physical life because of a bad hip and poor eyes.

I used to be a slob. I could eat a huge can of potato chips in a single evening and gasped while walking up stairs. On Jan. 1, 1985, I started exercising and eating better. I began to think of life as a wheel with spokes representing our intellectual, spiritual and physical natures. Without all three, the wheel, and life, collapse. I am loath to give up the spoke named "physical" when I am barely into middle age.

A second-rate athlete, I am not competitive. Somebody asked Crazy Horse why he danced. "Because I can," he answered. I do triathlons because I can, however badly. My ambition is to not drown, to not fall off my bike, to not have a heart attack during the run. Afterward, I take Advil for the hip and feel utterly alive.

I have known wonderful athletes. A good friend was a world champion Ironman, a former commando and foreign diplomat. He lost his only son in the Vietnam War. His wife was chronically ill. He'd suffered a bad stroke. He never seemed to brood. "What's the point?" he asked. His name was Jim Ward, and I wrote stories about him.

When he recovered from his stroke, he jumped back into the soup of his life. He liked to swim a mile in the morning and work in a run or bike ride later in the day. He loved drinking beer and dancing with younger women. Last Labor Day, he was riding his bike when he had another stroke. He was dead before he hit the ground. He was buried at Arlington Cemetery with full military honors, bike shoes on his feet. He was 82.

The Catholic saint Catherine of Siena said, "All the way to heaven is heaven."

I feel a cliche coming: Live today as if it were your last on earth.

Older, wiser

I am relaxed by the Demerol. A nurse puts drops into my left eye. My pupil dilates. The eye grows numb. The surgeon leans over, tells me to stare directly at the light.

I can't feel it when he makes his incisions. He has to tell me. I hear vibration when the ultrasound breaks up the cataract. He removes my natural lens, implants an artificial one. It's over.

My eyes burn and water. By day's end, I start seeing better. The next day I realize how badly I see in the other eye, the one I once thought was my good eye. The following week that one gets fixed. My vision is 20/20. I feel like a teenager again.

I run with pleasure through the beautiful woods at Seminole Park. Afterward I stretch my hip and with new eyes watch a bald eagle soar above Lake Seminole. For a moment, I forget about the hip and recall the words of Albert Einstein: "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious."

When I was a boy, I wanted to be a priest. I married and had children and made a living. I lost my faith, my marriage failed, I hurt a lot of good people.

I have a happy new marriage. As I get older, I work on forgiving myself for my imperfections and forgiving others. The sermons at my Methodist church always sound as if they are directed at me.

In the woods, I meditate as I was taught by a Buddhist friend. Why do we Homo sapiens find it hard to live in the present? Why can't we pay attention to every moment, even the unpleasant ones? Relax more, control less? Listen better? Make more time with family? Remember that our work, while important, is not our whole reason for being?

When I was in college, I was so in a hurry to begin a career that I treated my courses as obstacles and took little pleasure in learning. So now, three decades later, I read the stuff I missed or was too dumb to appreciate the first time around. The Iliad, Walden, Melville, poetry by Yeats.

Yeats wrote, "Under every dancer, a dead man in his grave."

Of course he was right. Even as we dance _ and we should never stop dancing _ we accept the presence of the owl, watching and waiting, ever so patiently, from the trees.