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issue 19: july - august 2000 

 | author's bio


Barbara F. Lefcowitz




I can still hear the slap of the rope on the sidewalk, the jingles that accompanied our games: "Oh you can’t go to Macy’s any more, more, more/There’s a big fat policeman at the door/door/door" ..." High water, low water, over the bridge". . . And what in the world was Double Dutch?
The jump-rope itself had two shiny handles made of wood, usually a lacquered red; the handles were curved to fit your small hands. You could play the sissy way--two friends swinging a rope no higher than six or eight inches, your aim to jump across the swinging rope without touching it. If you should be clumsy enough to do the latter, it was time to be a swinger, not a jumper. Of course, you kept track of the number of times you had cleared the rope. Or you could be more daring, swinging the rope over your head and jumping over it when it hit the ground, never pausing, sometimes inviting another girl to join you as you relentlessly turned the rope over and under. . .again, keeping careful track of the number of times she or you cleared the rope. Why did only girls play jump-rope? And why is it so hard to do even one or two "jumping jacks" when you’re past the age of, say, eleven?


Little pouches sewn onto my grandmother’s apron, they held everything: coins, curls of dust, shiny pieces of paper, thread, needles, perhaps a piece of candy she was holding in reserve for one of us. . .Pockets: especially convenient for stowing handkerchiefs and your own hands when you didn’t know what to do with them. More often than not, some of the stitches that held them came loose and whatever you put in your pocket slipped out immediately: a skate key, a lipstick you weren’t supposed to be using, a tampon. Or an equally torn glove might hang in there, one finger caught in the pocket’s hole. And, to your chagrin, sometimes they were fake, mere patches some designer thought would look neat on the sides of a skirt. But the real ones were a godsend, whether made from lace, velveteen, leather, or wool, for they could relieve our hands of sticky burdens, substitute well enough for those balky things called purses--or, back a few decades, pocket books. Which brings to mind, of course, paperbound books. . .Were they really supposed to fit into a pocket?


I saw my first bidet on my first trip to Paris, more than four decades ago. The man who accompanied me refrained from urinating into the bidet just in time, figuring it was meant for something else. Which in his case turned out to be a basin for washing his clothes, emptying a packet of the newly invented beads of cold water soap atop his underwear and socks and letting them soak. If the chambermaid hadn’t shortly thereafter entered the room and burst out laughing, perhaps I’d not been especially curious about the purpose of a bidet. Of course, she did not explain, just kept on laughing. Rude, to say the least. And indicative of a narrow mind as well, a mind with no tolerance for versatility--for surely the bidet is one of the most versatile of contraptions, effective for all manner of activities--except that for which it was designed. In fact, I can’t think of a less effective contraceptive, even if the woman rushes from bed to bidet before her lover has even consummated his passion. Ah, but the French. . .



Since the Stone Age, people have twisted fibres, hair, and strips of hide into an ur-form of rope, which then served as cordage for fishing nets and the making of traps. Early in its history, rope’s versatility was recognized: a cave-painting in eastern Spain shows a person using a primitive rope ladder to climb down a cliff’s face in order to collect wild honey.
      To make rope, the ancient Egyptians used reeds and fibre from date palms, as well as grass, papyrus, flax, and camel-hair. But the rope was used not for binding together bolts of cloth or sheaves of any sort; rather it served as a means for gangs of slaves to combine their strength so they might move the enormous stones necessary for construction of the pyramids and other great monuments. The ropes were thick as a wrist; once the stone was set on a sledge with rollers, men, often nearly 200 at a time, could haul it by pulling on four or more long and many-stranded ropes. The Egyptians also used rope for rigging their boats, creating it from strips of leather as well as palm and papyrus fibres. Several tomb paintings reveal the complicated process of making such rope, one person feeding the fibres into a "whirling tool," which another person turned by hand, at the same time walking backwards until the strands were sufficiently stretched.


Who can forget the sinking feeling when a plane on which one was a passenger hit an air pocket and began suddenly to descend, usually on a summer day? The term pocket is also used in reference to a cavity in the earth that contains gold or some other metallic ore. When speaking of billiards, a pocket refers to any of the pouches at the sides or corners of the table. . .Rodents also have pockets; in fact, there is a species of rodent called the pocket mouse (Perognathus), burrowing creatures common to deserts whose pockets consist of fur-filled pouches in their cheeks. Larger versions go by the name of pocket gophers. . . Neither they nor the smaller pocket mice have any connection with the American legislative phenomenon of the pocket veto: one brought about by the President’s failure to sign a bill presented to him within ten days of the adjournment of Congress: Presumably he simply stuck the bill in a pocket of his pants and forgot all about it; by the time the laundress discovered the errant piece of paper, it was too late to remedy the situation.


Ah, but the French. . .Only they could create such a website as "The (virtual) Baguette."
      Assuming we know that the word bidet literally means pony, the authors proceed to inform us that the history of the bidet goes back to the time of the Crusades, when returning cavaliers invented a pre-bidet called Bidoaille, which they could mount as if it were a horse --or a woman. While sitting astride their creation, they would sing a famous folksong which begins "A dada sur mon bidet. . ." Alas, no further lyrics are provided.
      By the time of the Industrial Revolution, the bidet had become a status symbol for the nouvelle bourgeoisie. In order to distinguish themselves from the latter, aristocrats designed a new version of the bidet, le Bidache, used exclusively for washing mustaches. On one of his many trips to Paris, none other than Karl Marx was so intrigued by this latest device that he used it to wash his ample beard, subsequently proclaiming--to the chagrin of the few remaining aristocrats--"Le lavabo est le Bidache du peuple": the sink is the bidet of the common man.
      In contemporary Paris, people now display the bidet in their foyers and use it openly, though one must be sufficiently discreet never to talk about its many functions, which include washing one’s feet and le cul (backside), but apparently not efforts to avoid conception. Vive le France! Accompanying the deadpan text are scenes from that tourist must, Le Galerie de Bidets. . .which turns out to contain several pictures of one and only one ordinary bidet photographed from different angles. As Gertrude Stein never said, a bidet is a bidet is a bidet. And as Freud never said, sometimes a bidet is simply a bidet, like the cigar that is simply a cigar and not a symbolic penis.



To a cowboy, the word rope indicates a lasso or lariat; to a scientist a sticky glutinous formation of stringy matter that develops in a liquid. If garlic bulbs are strung by twisting or braiding they constitute a "rope of garlic"; likewise there are onion ropes and, conceivably, pomegranate ropes, even starfruit and lichee ropes.
      Metaphorically, we speak of "learning the ropes" in reference to learning a particular procedure; perhaps the term derived from the complications of boat-rigging or creating nautical knots. Then there are the ropey metaphors for enclosures, all cliches by now: police "rope off" the scene of a crime or accident (though nowadays they usually accomplish this by setting up flashing lights or those red plastic cones that resemble clown’s hats); an angry person might complain of being "roped"--i.e. tricked--into buying something by a deceptive salesperson, say, a Lambroghini or Jaguar when one already has one or both.
      Those who have reached the limits of their endurance are said to be "at the end of their rope." Perhaps that expression relates to mountain climbing or to execution by hanging; in either case, lack of a sufficient length of rope can lead to disaster. More obvious the phrase "on the ropes" to indicate the verge of defeat or collapse, a term derived from the roped-off boxing ring.


Somewhat less familiar pockets include pocket boroughs, a pre-Reformation English term for a borough whose representatives to Parliament were not freely elected but determined by families with clout and cash. In racing circles, the word pocket refers to a position in which someone’s progress is impeded because other competitors have hemmed him in. We say something "has lined his pockets" when he has profitted at the expense of others; if something is "in one’s pocket," she’s won something valuable, like the votes of a particular district or unquestioned obedience of its inhabitants.
      Have you ever fished in the pockets of a coat hanging in a closet while waiting, say, for a prospective employer to emerge from his or her office to interview you? Better yet, the pockets of a visiting dignitary, your lawyer, the man or woman suspected of having an adulterous relationship with your spouse, your stockbroker, your psychotherapist. . .Alas, most of the time, all you’ll find is a crumpled kleenex, a penny or two, some lint. But there’s always that chance of finding a secret document or a neatly rolled marijuana joint. . .even keys or money.


Simply by dialing an 800 number you can order an IntiMist Bidet and enhance "your own personal hygiene regimen." Manufactured by Panasonic, the IntiMist boasts twin nozzles, each for a separate but undefined function, a heated seat, a family nozzle for those who would cleanse together. What’s more, all functions are user-activated so one need not worry about being sprayed by accident. You might, however, prefer the Bidecut, which offers "water rinsing for feeling good."
      Too bourgeois? A company called Le Elegant Emporium offers, for a mere few thousand dollars, a bidet created from genuine Italian marble and designed in Japan, the perfect addition to a bathroom so stylish your guests will stay forever. When I noticed the ad for that bathroom, I began to laugh like that long ago Parisian chambermaid: what could be the use of the genuine marble bidet other than its contribution to snobbery--as if the sunken marble tub the size of a Roman bath, the inevitable jacuzzi, and iridescent commode with gold fixtures were not enough to furnish the wildest imagination of those who dream about water closets.
But without imagination there would be no versatility. Hence the bidet as an extra place to store wine or, filled with ice, to stock extra cans of beer lest they be needed at a party. . . An extra punch bowl, soup vat, or--with a sterno can artfully concealed beneath-- a container for the melted cheese of a fondue, if anyone discriminating enough to purchase a marble bidet would deign to serve his guests something so gauche. . . Has any murderer ever disposed of his victim in the spout of a bidet, preferably finely minced?



Versatility, of course, is what links rope, pockets, and bidets. And certainly today the capacity to be versatile is equivalent to the capacity to be unswervingly faithful to the edicts of the gods in simpler times. How many "riffed" engineering instructors are now teaching the use of computers; how many holders of doctoral degrees in English or the humanities are now teaching the use of computers; how many unemployed scientists. . .
      Daily life constantly demands more flexibility, a subcategory of versatility, than ever before. Pity the person who used to pay for a subway or bus ride with a coin or two but must now purchase a computerized "fare card" from a machine that even if functioning is not guaranteed to accept that person’s one and only dollar bill. Just because. . .
      Once upon a time you could seek information over the telephone and be greeted by a human voice. Whether the speaker knew anything or not is beside the point. Now one not only must be sufficiently versatile to remember whether to press one or press two, but if you know your party’s extension, well, then press 767 followed by the pound key or would you please enter your date of birth and date of death by pressing the appropriate buttons followed by the star key--or is it the. . .
      The word versatile itself derives from the Latin for turn. Thus a versatile person is able to turn easily from one task to another, one mate to another, one sleeping surface to another, be it a soft bed, a futon, or the floor; likewise one must be able to move from, say, a city on the equator to Alaska with no problem whatsoever despite the radically different patterns of sunrise and sunset.
To achieve such a high degree of versatility, it is necessary to blunt both memory and strong responses to the present, thus diminishing the likelihood of forming close attachments and, god forbid, enacting any rituals. Potential models include those flowers whose petals have "versatile anthers" so they can swing easily a breeze and people who possess a "versatile toe," one which can move in several directions at once, adapting to whatever dance pattern might be demanded at the moment. (I often fear such thinking will be much encouraged in the future; indeed, I see evidence of it in many of my present day students, who scorn the need to learn about anything that occurred before they were born and laugh at the very concept of ethical standards and laws that transcend any particular circumstance, at the same time shrugging their shoulders in response to present events.)
      A versicolored object or creature gathers no visual moss and is thus adept at camouflage. Then there’s the related word "version"--a particular and not necessarily reliable account of an event or story but one that reveals the creative versatility of the person who has created that account. The word also refers to turning the foetus in the uterus so as to bring it into a position most favorable for birth.
      Which brings me to my final point: versatility of thought, essential for all artists, but particularly for writers. A sure sign of the lack of versatility is literalism, an inability to imagine, let alone write about anything not previously defined and structured. Literalism is closely linked with authoritarianism, reliance on the knowledge or whims of another person or another historical era; it demands no interpretation, no stretching, as it were, of the fibres that comprise the ropework of the mind.
      Unlike a pocket, which can contain virtually any combination of things, those who are not versatile can only hold a single idea, most likely a memorized slogan. And quite unlike a bidet, the non-versatile are capable of only one function: repetition of what has already been said and done.
      For such people, to engage in variations that might result in new connections is downright scary. Yet there can be no progress without risking new webs of possibilities combined with chance, no matter how absurd they might at first seem. Likewise, no matter how absurd they might ultimately turn out to be. . .


2000 Barbara F. Lefcowitz

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author's bio
Barbara F. Lefcowitz has published six books of poetry, a novel, and individual poems, stories, and essays in over 350 journals. She has won writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation, among others. Also a visual artist, she currently lives in Bethesda, Maryland. The essay published here is part of a series of "Triads," in which the author juxtaposes three seemingly disparate objects or ideas and tries to work out their interconnections. Two other "triads" have been published in The Barcelona Review: GROOVES, CAMOUFLAGE, AND THE CONSPIRACY OF WHITENESS,  and SWANS, TRICKSTERS, THE LETTER 'S'

E-mail: BLefcowitz@aol.com                                 

navigation:                         barcelona review #19                    july - august 2000
-Fiction James Meek: These Lovers
James Meek: And the Days Grow Shorter
Lynn Coady: Jesus Christ, Murdeena
David Ewen: God's Breath
Patricia Anthony: Owl Says
Abel Diaz: Comfortable
-Essay Barbara F. Lefcowitz: Rope, Pockets, The Bidet
-Interview Patricia Anthony: Worlds at War
-Article July and August in Barcelona
-Quiz Toni Morrison
Answers to last issue's William Faulkner Quiz
-Regular Features Book Reviews
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