There's a lot more to rope than you think
Jessie Alsop teaches us how to tie a bowline knot.
“Is that the one where the rabbit goes in the hole?”
“Ok, I learned that in fourth grade, so let’s see what I can reproduce.”
I laugh and my fingers fumble with the bright white rope we’d purchased ten minutes before at Cliff’s Variety Store for twenty cents a foot.
“And something else happens.” I stare at the rope.
“The rabbit goes around the tree,” Jessie prompts.
“And back down! Yeah!”
“Yeah. So that’s wrong.” The calm, non-judgmental way Jessie agrees with and discredits me in the same breath, one of her signature bits of locution, makes me throw back my head and laugh. We’re sitting in Dolores Park on a sunny weekday, and Jessie is trying to teach me how to tie a bowline, “the king of knots.”
I take the rabbit back out and try again.
Jessie didn’t drive any big boats until she was twenty-eight, even though she started sailing with her brothers when she was fourteen. “But I never got to drive the boat. I never got to be the helmsman, I was always the lackey.” Now she’s a boat captain (one hundred ton limit). She tells me she loves being able to move a massive object using just the wind.
We talk about her time surf life saving and working as a lifeguard in her teens, in a small town called Riversdale Beach. She tells me that New Zealand has more coastline per square foot than any other country in the world. When I ask if she had to dive in and save people she responds, “Oh yeah, yeah, all the time.” I think about my summer job when I was sixteen; I was a front desk hostess at an Elephant Bar and Grill, a restaurant located in the parking lot of a suburban mall. I learned a lot of things about human nature that summer, but I don’t think it provided me quite the gravitas that I suspect being a first responder and a volunteer firefighter gave Jessie.
Even though we’ve seen each other regularly onstage and off for the past two years, and even though the work we make together requires a constant exploration and revelation of personal truths, I’ve always known there’s so much I didn’t know about Jessie. Not that she has an air of mystery—far from it. But her grounded, forthright pragmatism means I’ve been surprised by every eventual revelation. It’s so different to me from the way people often present themselves, where they have their five fun facts ready to roll out for any cocktail party, a few quick canapés of who they are, where they’ve been, and where they’re going.
She tells me the flipside of this is that she often feels self-conscious about the disparate nature of her life. “I get nervous that I’ll come across as someone who doesn’t know what they want, or hasn’t committed fully to one path and rigorously pursued that.”
When she left New Zealand at twenty-five, she tried living in Wisconsin, where her mother is from. “You don’t realize how much of an islander are you are until you live in a very inland place. I had a physical response. It made me very uncomfortable that I didn’t know where the nearest ocean was.” Eventually she made her way to California, living for a year and a half as a bookbinder in a Buddhist commune. Everyone worked in silence for six days a week. “It was really good. I wrote so much music. I’d come home to my little room every day and write songs on my guitar.”
I’ve been practicing the bowline while we talk, and I’m finally starting to make ones that are more or less correct. “Now you want to have control of the loop,” Jessie tells me, “and you want to make the loose end shorter.” Then she teaches me to do it the way she likes better, which skips the narrative about the rabbit, but involves a flick of the wrist so smooth I’m convinced it’s a magic trick. She shows it to me again, and again, and again, and breaks it down into even smaller movements, and I start to get it.
I ask her about whether she has an art community she’s moving back to in New Zealand. Her wife is pursuing an Electrical Engineering PhD in Sonic Arts at Victoria University of Wellington, and they’ll be there together for the next three years. She does, but she’s been feeling anxious. She’s been there for a few weeks, and is just in San Francisco for a brief visit to complete the move. “The heteronormative status quo is very present. And even though I have a lot of friends there who make art and are creative people, I’ve been surprised at how weird I feel. How much of a weirdo I feel I am. Suddenly to be in a place where there’s a lot more conversations about your kids’ schools, and what renovations you’re doing on your house—”
“People own houses!” I can’t help interjecting.
“Yeah. I’ve had to really buckle down and tell myself, ‘No, assimilation is not what needs to happen here.’”
Jessie tells me the two people she’s collaborating with right now are not in New Zealand. “I’ve been really leaning into the technology we have available to us. And I also really love the community that I have in San Francisco. It took me such a long time to find it. I don’t want to try and create a new one, or revive one I used to have.”
One of her long-distance collaborators is a Boston-based songwriter. “We provide each other with a framework, and accountability. So a lot of the work that we’re doing is separate. I send her lyrics, she sends me lyrics. And primarily we’re trying to write pop music that we feel good about. I guess it’s feminist pop music, a lot of it. Pop music that isn’t damaging to ourselves or the future generations.”
She’s also continuing to collaborate with her wife Sasha on “Women on the Water,” a docu-drama podcast based on women who live on their boats at Pier 39. It’s the same pier the two of them have called home for the past six years, on their own thirty-six-foot sailboat, which they’ve sold due to the move.
We don’t get to talk about her time making theater with refugees and migrants, her time performing Queer Glam Electronica, or working on Bag of Cunts, the podcast she’s produced for the past year about creative women surviving in male-dominated fields. We do talk about how cold it is in Wellington. It’s winter there in September. The winds blow over the Antarctic snow, across the ocean and straight up under the lining of your jacket. Her sister has been mocking her for how much she buttons up.
I’m a Californian, so even though it’s a sunny sixty-something degrees in San Francisco, I button up my wool coat as we leave the park. I drop her off and walk back to my apartment, my left hand clasping the knotted rope in my pocket. Something to hold onto.–Margaret McCarthy