Good Women and Dogs


The last time I went camping I looked like this:

Nana and I at Disneyland, probably around 1974.

Based on the orange corduroys alone you should assume things went poorly.  I had terrible allergies, wore thick glasses and was sure I would wake up to snakes in my sleeping bag.  Or maybe a yeti.  In fact, that year, we did go camping and I did roll very close to a service road sometime during the night.  If you wear thick glasses there is almost nothing worse than waking up in an unfamiliar place without your glasses.  I like nature but I like it over there.  I respect it, protect it, give money to those who will protect it better than I would.  I would love a garden if it could happen by magic and included a donut tree.

So I was remotely interested in the flora and fauna in The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert’s new novel, because it’s in a book and I don’t have to sleep in it.  And, wow, there’s a lot of nature.  The amount of research is staggering.  Gilbert is a very talented and accessible writer; she has a way of making a homely mid-1800’s spinster someone to whom you can relate.  Alma Whittaker is a brilliant and disciplined visionary, having been raised by an uncouth, shrewd father and a severe, scholarly mother.  Through work ethic and some arduous and hard-won self-respect, Alma becomes a botanist specializing in mosses, traveling the world and rubbing elbows with the most educated minds of her time.  Clearly Alma is ahead of her generation, both as a scientist and in her quest to understand her own human, fallible self.  She is also, literally and figuratively, too large for her world and not blessed with looks or an appreciative social network…at least not until later in life.  But, honestly, despite this (mostly) fascinating epic tale, the book irritated me.  Why did Gilbert place so much emphasis on Alma’s physical shortcomings?  Why did she have to go all the way to Tahiti for concrete answers, and end up with dubious and nonsensical spiritual enlightenment?  I was ready to rescue poor Alma myself by the time she’d gotten to the magical cave, if only to assure her she was worth more than a one-sided roll in the moss.

Curiously, while reading this book, I took occasional breaks to visit Allie Brosh’s life in Hyperbole And A Half, a semi-graphic memoir (she writes a blog of the same name, through Blogspot).  All right, her post “A Better Pain Scale” is completely worth your time, especially if you’ve ever spent a minute waiting waiting waiting waiting on crunchy paper sheets in any emergency room.  Her book covers her dog obsession, her depression, her mom getting them lost in the woods, and all other kinds of fun.  I won’t get into the illustrations because my artistic window slammed shut and was painted over permanently around age 10.  I can draw a decent horse and a passable rabbit but I get stuck on proportions so usually the horse has too big an ass.   The chapters on her depression are simultaneously thoughtful and zany.  Nothing spells “bad day” like a pulled-up gray hoodie and nobody draws one quite like Brosh.  For those of us who’ve harbored and loved broken dogs – the dumb ones and the smart-monkey-brained ones – this book is just yummy.  Alice Townsend, for whom this blog is named, was a loving and neurotic canine mess.   She habitually ate all the tampons she could find in the cabinets.  She ate most of my couch.  She looked like a cross between a coyote and a wild pig, and for the first year she rode in my truck she drooled enough to fill buckets.  Once I came into the room and she was standing on the table at my eye level, eating the butter, and she growled at me.  She was afraid of: stairs, the wind, hallways and most men wearing hats, but not all.   She was a fierce guard dog for the kids but never liked anyone touching her.  And, as Mr. Halfstory has aptly mentioned, her incessant barking was “molar-rattling.”  And our response to this was:  Hey!  Let’s get another ridiculous dog no one else wants and see if our blood pressure skyrockets and our hair turns prematurely white!

I think maybe only Allie understands.