Death is a temporary madness. A madness that stops life within us and around us. . . . We are held captive in a sad, empty pause.
Duane Hahn wrote these words in his final book, Looking Through the Rain, which he finished the same day he died, on February 3rd of this year. Duane was a friend of mine through the local theatrical community, and I had the honor of helping his executor, Michael Waltz, prepare the book for publication. (Please buy a copy.)
The book is a philosophical memoir and travelogue in the vein of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It recounts Duane’s adventures with a series of beloved dogs as they come into and out of his life.
In hindsight, it’s easy to be struck by the spooky prescience of passages like the one I quoted above. The horror writer in me can’t help but linger over his puzzlement at the portentous things he witnessed in the month before he died: a dog with three legs, a family of cows mourning a dead one in a field, and news reports about dead birds dropping from the sky.
But that’s not what the book is about. Looking Through the Rain is actually an ode to Duane’s love of life as taught to him by his dogs. And that’s what the title is a reference to. Duane tells a story about sitting on his porch during a terrific rain storm, worrying about potential flooding, power outages, and insurance claims. His Jack Russell terrier, Teddy, couldn’t care less. Seeing a bird, Teddy gives chase through the storm. “I think I am being taught something by my damp pup,” Duane observes. Pets like Teddy are compulsive and live for the moment, while “People think and plan.”
The book is full of anecdotes like this, but somehow the author avoids becoming saccharine. The presentation is often as playful as his pets, everything from how chapter titles are capitalized to its indulgence in jokes. My favorite chapter is “DoGs versus PeOpLe,” a 27-point list why dogs make better traveling companions than people. Dogs “do not have to take time to decide what to wear and are happy about it.” Dogs “do not have a schedule and are happy about it,” and dogs “do not have to be entertained; they entertain themselves cheaply and are happy about it.”
At other times, Duane comes right out and preaches — and these are the passages I’ve been rereading. A dog, he writes, goes through life without worries, and so should we because there’s often nothing we can do about those worries. “It has always bothered me that people worry,” Duane writes. “I think it is a word that should be eliminated. But then I and others might worry about that.”
I’m not the only one who thinks Duane was someone special. His funeral was absolutely packed, and in many ways the event was a testament to his sense of humor. Ever the theater director, Duane couldn’t resist the chance to plan this one final production — I can just hear him saying, “If I can’t avoid it, I might as well direct it” — so he left behind a detailed set of instructions about who would speak and what what songs they would perform. (You can still watch it online.)
I also owe Duane a debt of gratitude. Back when I was shopping my stage play “Pirate Appreciation Day” around, Duane was one of the only people who took the time to write me back. That was in late January. He said the play was very funny and that I should present it directly to the board of the Waynesboro Players, the local theatrical company through whom we met. I wouldn’t have gone before the board and proposed a reading to present the play to them if Duane hadn’t pushed me, saying, “Don’t worry; I’ll be there supporting you.” As it was, he was gone by the time I made that presentation, but I feel like he was there supporting me anyway. And now, thanks to him, the Waynesboro Players will premiere it this winter.
I’m glad I could give a small repayment to Duane by helping out on his final book. Looking Through the Rain is a bittersweet reflection on the life of a special person shared with some very special pets. Its beautiful cover illustration by Cortney Skinner is alone worth the cover price, but it is what’s between the covers that makes it an edifying read whether or not you knew Duane personally.
Matthew, thank you so very much for helping get Duane’s last book published. I just finished reading it this morning. It was like listening to him talk and reflect in person. I will treasure it as another keepsake of his incredible life. I sure do miss Duane as, I’m sure, everyone who knew him does.