Sunday 27 February 2011

The Price of Salt

            Some of you might be thinking, “Umm, about 50 cents, unless you’re talking about road salt, which is a few bucks.” Others might be wondering, “Why is a website about guys named Richard discussing one of the earliest lesbian pulp fiction novels?”
            Well, I have answer for you: salt is about 20p (I happen to be in the UK at the moment), more if you want it iodized. As to the novel, I saw on Wikipedia that one of the protagonists begins the novel with a boyfriend named Richard. I thought that this would be a perfect chance to read some fun, frivolous literature and explore one of my favorite phenomenons of fiction: the easy way of conveying that a male character is a dick. And, honestly, what’s easier than just naming the guy Dick? It’s right there, completely obvious. It’s a giant sign saying “stay away from me, ladies, I am an ass.” For two of my favorite examples, see Richard in Crocodile Dundee and Pre-med Dick from Van Wilder. As sad as it would make me, if I ever found myself in a fictional universe, I would steer clear of all guys named Dick until I had reliable information the name was not also a spot-on label. [Note: I do realize that not all fictional Richards/Dicks are dicks, but many are.]
            Anyway, this has given me an idea. Since this blog is devoted to all things Richard, I figure that includes fictional Richards as well. Therefore, whenever I read a book with a Dick in it, I will evaluate said Dick for this fine blog, using the no-nonsense scale of: Dick or No Dick.
            In general, my first foray did not uphold my theory. The Price of Salt is about a young woman named Therese who falls in love with Carol, an older woman going through a divorce. The two are clearly in love, hanging out a bunch, before deciding to take a road trip West. Carol’s soon-to-be-ex-husband, Harge, figures out Carol is on a trip with her girlfriend and hires a detective to obtain enough incriminating evidence that he can have sole custody of Rindy, the daughter of Carol and Harge. Needless to say, the detective gets more than enough material (wink, wink – though, seriously, it’s way tame!), and Carol is forced to choose between her child and her love. At first Carol seems to choose her daughter, forcing Therese to undergo an extremely rapid growing-up period (I mean, we’re talking a couple weeks here at most). Back in New York, though, the women reunite and Carol reveals she hasn’t really chosen her daughter and asks Therese to move in with her. Still feeling betrayed, Therese declines, only to go back to Carol eight pages later. Although the book’s ending doesn’t spell it out for you, Carol and Therese (now equals since Therese has grown up more) will probably end up living together very happily.
            Therese is dating a young man named Richard when the novel begins. I read the book in two sittings, and I got two very different views of Richard. In the first portion of the book, he seemed very nice. He’s an aspiring painter, although he’s not that good and Therese tells him he’ll end up working for his father’s company soon (which does before the book is over, I guess signaling his descent into typical 1950s conformity). Early in the book, his main faults (to Therese) seem to be his failure to regularly clean his nails and his soft hands (like a girl’s the book says!). Although the two have been dating for about ten months and Richard wants to marry her, the two have only tried to have sex about four times, and each time it was eight different kinds of horrible (foreshadowing?). But Richard was always sweet and understanding about it, and when Therese tells him she doesn’t want to sleep with him, he gives a tolerant, understanding laugh, says he loves her, and goes home! That’s pretty cool. Therese also reveals she likes Richard because “‘he treats me like a person instead of just a girl he can go so far with or not’” (75). Props for human decency, I suppose. And when Therese first broaches the subject of same-sex love with him, Richard doesn’t immediately shut her down. She asks him if he has ever been in love with a boy and he thinks about it for five seconds before saying no! (Maybe he had to think about it because he spent two years in the Navy). He doesn’t think Therese would fall in love with a girl because there’s nothing in her background (1950s psychology talking there). And Therese does deny that she has fallen in love with a girl, although she is totally lying.
            In the first section, that is clearly Richard’s major fault – he is freakin’ oblivious. His girlfriend is ditching him for a woman, asking him questions about homosexuality, and admits she doesn’t love him (but she does like him), but he still professes his love for her. I guess it’s sweet that he loves her so much and wants to commit, but sometimes you just have to cut and run. This would be one of those times. Even when Therese’s “crush” is becoming more obvious, Richard still tells her he loves her (but points out that Therese should really get over this business because it’s not natural). Whatever, dude, whatever.
            The other interesting thing is that Richard’s family (the Semcos) are of Russian extraction. They even speak Russian sometimes, and Richard is portrayed as knowing how to speak (at least some of) the language. His father owns his own business (a petty bourgeois capitalist), but I wonder if there’s any message contained there. Is it better to be a lesbian than to marry a pinko-Russian Commie?
            In the second part, he doesn’t appear because the main character is on a road trip. She receives a few letters from him, which at first seem rather pathetic. He is very affectionate and seems intent on winning her back. I found myself thinking, “Dude, take a hint, she’s gay!” Of course, maybe he could be forgiven somewhat because Therese keeps sending his mother presents; in fact, when Therese is sending chocolates to people, she sends Mrs. Semco the largest box. Granted the gift came to his mother and not to him, but it could be a little confusing. After no communication from Therese, Richard finally takes a hint and writes a not-very-nice letter. He tells Therese he no longer loves her (which maybe is not that rude, as she clearly doesn’t love him!), but adds that her relationship with Carol disgusts him, terming it both pathological and infantile. He also claims he will tell everyone why they are no longer together, which sounds a bit like sour grapes on his part. So, yeah, that was a dick move, but maybe I couldn’t expect much better. Never having been a man living in the fifties, I have no idea how I would react to the woman I loved dumping me for another woman. I guess maybe I shouldn’t hate on Richard too much for not writing “It’s cool that you’re a lesbian. Let’s be friends! Best of luck with Carol!” because it was the fifties. On second thought... no. Dick move.
            Richard doesn’t come up much more after that, but when he does he gets a bit more negative press. On his way to a new job in California, Dannie (a guy Therese met through Richard) visits her. They talk about her and Carol some, and Dannie mentions that Richard feels jilted, his ego is suffering (duh!), but that he (Dannie) is much cooler than Richard and thinks people’s lives are their own. Burn, Richard! I would be inclined to give Dannie more credit, though, if he didn’t also think Therese would grow out of this phase. When Therese tells Dannie she probably won’t see another woman, he smiles, telling her “‘That’s what matters. Or rather, that’s what makes it not matter’” (258), adding that since she’s young, she’ll change and forget. What, she’ll just forget the first person she ever really loved? Not likely! And while Dannie does get props for being willing to have a relationship with Therese even though she’s damaged goods, he still thinks she’ll come to her senses and end up with a nice guy – him. He tells her to write to him in three months; presumably three months is all it will take to get the lesbian out of her system. Dannie obviously handles Therese (having been) in a lesbian relationship better than Richard, but would Dannie be so magnanimous were their positions reversed? The world will never know because Therese decides she will not pursue a relationship with Dannie (along with the obvious reason: these people aren’t real!). The book ends with Therese leaving a party to go to Carol, and Carol is happy to see her. In my mind, they are happy together forever.
            So the final verdict: no dick. While a large part of me is still pissed that Richard was disgusted by Therese’s lesbian behavior, I suppose I have to accept that most men probably wouldn’t be thrilled to have their girlfriend dump them for another woman, especially in the 1950s when homosexuality was still considered a psychiatric disorder. So like a weather report, Richard is fair to partly cloudy – fair to occasionally dickish.
            Although I had expected Richard to be a dick, he wasn’t really (except on occasion). Although my theory has taken a hit (maybe it applies mostly to movies?), I am glad he wasn’t a total ass. That would have sent a bad message, something such as “women become lesbians because men are jerks.” That is patently untrue, and I’m glad not even a hint of that could be found in this novel.

Morgan, Claire [pseudonym for Patricia Highsmith]. The Price of Salt. New York: Coward-
McCann, Inc, 1952.

Friday 18 February 2011

Richard Steiff

            In honor of Valentine’s Day being earlier this week, I’ll discuss something cute and cuddly. Not Richard Steiff himself (I have no idea what he looked like), but his invention: the stuffed toy bear.* This fine invention is now known as the Teddy Bear, but since that naming relates to a guy named Theodore (which is decidedly not the name Richard), you’ll have to check another website for that tale.

*Some Americans were also working on teddy bears, but I’m giving Steiff credit because it’s my website (and I’ll cry if I want to).

            For those of you who are not experts in the plush-toy scene, Steiff is a German company that makes some of the best and most expensive plush toys around (I cannot say the best because I am not that much of an expert about stuffed toys). All of their plush toys come with little buttons in their ears, attached to yellow Steiff tags. This is referred to as “Knopf im Ohr” or “Button in Ear,” and if your toy doesn’t have it then it’s not a Steiff. Their motto is “Für Kinder ist nur das beste gut genug,” which translates to “Only the best is good enough for [our] children.” And you know they take this seriously because, in the words of the Sham-Wow guy, “Germans always make good stuff!” 
            The Steiff Toy Company was started by Richard’s aunt, Margarete Steiff, for whom Richard went to work in 1897. Richard, who had attended Stuttgart School of Art, liked to draw sketches of bears that he saw at the zoo, and he based his first prototype on his drawings.
            In 1903 Richard took some of the bears to the Leipzig Toy Fair (Leipzig also has an awesome book fair), where they attracted little attention – except from an American buyer. This guy bought all one hundred bears that Richard had brought to the show and ordered 3,000 more. At the St Louis World’s Fair in 1904, Steiff sold about 12,000 toy bears. A plush-toy empire was born.
            And while the company is named after his aunt, headquarters are located on Richard-Steiff-Straße. So if you received a teddy bear with your Valentine’s chocolate you can thank Richard Steiff for building such splendid bears and the American public for being crazy enough to buy immense quantities.

Want more info or to purchase a Steiff for yourself? Try these links:

Sunday 13 February 2011

Richard Parker

 In the interests of full disclosure, I must admit that this post was inspired by the following article: Six Insane Coincidences You Won’t Believe Actually Happened. You only have to read #6, as that’s the only one to deal with Dicks.
If your name is Richard Parker, you should never go anywhere near the ocean. Richard Parkers have been stuffed into Davy Jones’ locker more frequently than the geeky kid in middle school. In fact, there is an entire Wikipedia article entitled “Richard Parker (shipwrecked).” You can read it by clicking on the link provided. Alternatively, just read the paragraphs below because I have ransacked that entry like a pirate.
Apparently Edgar Allan Poe got this ball rolling in his only novel-length work, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838).  Since, according to the abovementioned Cracked article, this novel contains a character named Richard, I knew I had to read.  And so, since I will go to great lengths to learn about Dicks (and I could get a copy for free on my Kindle), I read this illustrious novel.  Or, perhaps I should say, I read a portion of this truly wretched piece of work.  Even Poe agreed this book sucked, so I should have known better.  Anyway, I read up to chapter fourteen, and once Richard Parker had been murdered and eaten I jumped ship.
Following Poe’s lead, a few real Richard Parkers decided to get in on the whole “dying-at-sea” act. Apprentice Richard Parker was among twenty-one drowning victims when the ship Francis Spaight went belly-up in 1846. That kid got off easy, though. In 1884, cabin boy Richard Parker, one of four survivors from the sunken yacht Mignonette, was murdered and eaten by the remaining crew members. According to the survivors’ accounts, Parker was already ill, possibly in a coma, which probably made the decision to kill him that much easier. A crew member named Dudley stabbed Parker in the jugular, and the three surviving men feasted on his body and drank his blood.
This act led to the exciting case R v Dudley and Stephens (full case name Her Majesty The Queen v. Tom Dudley and Edwin Stephens) after the three survivors returned to shore. They admitted they had killed and eaten Parker, believing themselves protected by the custom of the sea, in which necessity [trying not to die] would excuse murder [killing a human for food]. Some land-lubbers disagreed and the case was brought to trial. Public opinion was generally supportive of the survivors, although it later dissipated when the court found the two guilty (ahh, the public – fickle as usual!). While Dudley and Stephens were convicted, establishing that necessity was not an excuse for murder, their death sentence was reduced to six months in prison.*

*The third survivor, who did not help murder Parker, was cut loose and turned into a witness for the prosecution.

Richard Parker has appeared in other places as well.  Apparently, the novel Life of Pi features a shipwrecked tiger named Richard Parker (guess I better add that book to my reading list).  For readers of a less literary nature, Richard Parker is also the father of Peter Parker, a.k.a Spiderman (this is not enough to convince me to read Spiderman comics, however).
There are, of course, a bunch of other guys named Richard Parker who have not perished in shipwrecks or been cannibalized. They include a mathematician, an Egyptologist, an economist, an architect, a jurist, a diplomat, and a sailor. Yes, a sailor. Even when not being murdered at sea, Richard Parkers are still causing trouble on the waves, as sailor Richard Parker was the leader of a mutiny. Clearly, Richard Parkers and water do not mix!

For more information, I can only direct you to Wikipedia. Try these links: