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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 3:24PM   |  20 comments
Zillah Eisenstein, Professor of Politics, Ithaca College

By Patricia Zimmermann, Professor of Screen Studies and codirector, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival

Blue baggy running shorts and dirt-crowned Nike running shoes with black stripes and purple socks.  Gray workout pants and a matching windbreaker zipped to the chin.  Hand-knitted skull cap in rainbow colors and mittens to match for running in the spine-biting cold of Ithaca. A black lycra face mask, only the eyes and nose unwrapped, vulnerable, open to the winds.

These drifting, out of focus images and shards of workout outfits mark Zillah for me on campus—and off.  These clothes map the life of the body—her body, my body, her mind, my mind, and whatever resides in that space between-- in action.

These workout clothes insert our bodies into heat, cold, wind, snow, rain, those immaterial yet material spectres that surround us but also seep deep into us as we breathe, run, walk, talk.

            And these gym clothes of Zillah’s, this armor for climate and hills and life beyond the computer and the classroom, mark those hard-wrought passages from inside to out, from classrooms to trails, from books, writing and lecturing to another kind of writing.  The body on the hilly landscapes and cracked sidewalks of Ithaca transforms into a pen and a scalpel, writing our bodies with others, through conversation and aching muscles and heavy breathes like the rhythm of a singing bowl in a Buddhist temple.

Zillah’s black tights, gray capri pants, pink running bras, sleeveless polypro yellow workout jerseys fought the confines of the academy—a transitory, oddly lonely place fortified through physical immobilizations behind desks and lecterns. The college’s deliberate isolations of disciplines, buildings, and brutal teaching schedules imprisoned us, cordoning off the solace of others.

When I arrived at Ithaca College in 1981, I was barely 26, just popped out of grad school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Ithaca College felt strange to me—I had never attended and did not quite comprehend a four-year private college campus. Coming from the Midwest with our love of big campuses, Big Ten football and basketball and big political interventions in the streets, I never anticipated the uneasy press of a small place and small college.

Ithaca and Ithaca College felt claustrophobic to me, a disjointed concoction of gray skies like I had never seen, hills, smallness, isolation, elitism, privilege, expensive tuition, and migrating Canadian geese whose first barking I thought was a pack of angry dogs on the loose.  East Coast pretensions, unfriendly colleagues, serving students like waitresses in a cheap roadside diner rather than getting lost in big gnarly unresolved ideas yanked me into a rather undefined and unshaped despair:  this mess was supposedly the glories of the academy?  Oh no. No way.

I had never lived in a place where it was difficult to see the horizon or look into the distance. I did not like being at Ithaca College.  It felt tiny.

My colleagues in cinema were all men, and at least ten years older than me. The students spewed a strange neediness and insecurity, spouting an anxious drone about jobs and internships rather than an openness about getting completely lost in the knots of complicated ideas.

I did not like Ithaca back then. It felt like a living reenactment set, a demented Disneyworld of old hippies in Birkenstocks absorbed in tofu, local bluegrass music, and baggy dresses. I liked clothes and punk rock and poetry and political documentaries. I could not find a community. I could not find blue skies, sunlight, or the horizon line.

The very first colleague I met on campus who had a conversation with me that was more than just where I was from and what I was teaching, Zillah was also the very first professor and woman academic I had ever met who wore workout clothes to campus. She taught politics and wrote books on anti-racist feminist theory. She would finish up her feminist theory classes, bolt into the bathroom, and change into her running gear or tennis clothes.  She slung two bags: one bag housed her very organized lecture notes in manila folders, the other stuffed with her workout clothes and muddy running shoes.

When Ithaca College offered me a tenure line job, one of my friends at Wisconsin, Tyler Stovall, now a well-known historian researching African Americans in France, suggested that I should get in touch with his former babysitter, Zillah Eisenstein. Their parents were in the civil rights movement together.  He said, she is a feminist and has politics, and at least you will know one person out East. 

So in September of 1981, two weeks after I endured the new faculty orientation where I learned I should produce a “student centered” worldview, I went to Zillah’s legendary Marxist Feminist Speakers series one evening in a very uncomfortable and stark lecture hall called Textor. I can’t recall who spoke.

After a blistering, energizing lecture about some controversial and unresolved feminist debate, I walked up to Zillah and introduced myself as a friend of Tyler’s. She said we had to get together. She asked if I did sports.  I did—in fact, sports and working out seemed the only way to detox my brain from the twisted labyrinths and psychic horrors of writing and teaching. 

About a week later, I was really, really alienated from the East Coast snobbery and really, really lonely in my empty apartment with only a desk and a bed.  I did what I always do when I don’t know anyone:  I took a bucket of balls and my racket and went up the hill to the Ithaca College tennis court to serve balls, thinking maybe I could find a pick-up game.

Zillah, in blue running shorts,  hit balls on another court with a colleague who was her boyfriend at the time.  She remembered me. She motioned to me to join them. I was so happy to play with other people, the only social interaction I had had beyond strange colleagues and needy students in three weeks. After we volleyed, she invited me to go running with her after teaching. It turned out we had similar schedules, free after 2:35 on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

After her breast cancer surgery in the last 1980s, I knew exactly what to give her:  turquoise running shorts and a purple workout jersey.  Defying medicalization, that outfit helped me to say to her what I could not then put into words:  we will continue to sweat together.

Throughout these three decades plus of deep friendship and weekly workouts, I have always been in awe of Zillah.  Like a sorceress, she converts bathrooms, gyms, cars, and offices into nodal points for change.  Change of clothes. Change of attitude. Change of political strategy. Change of ideas. Change of venue. Change.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, and then, later, on Wednesdays, we shifted from our elaborate teaching costumes (she wore flowing dresses with many layers of jackets and vests and jewelry while I liked pants so I could carry film equipment and projectors) into clothes that spoke the secret language of movement with intimate friends.  These workout clothes adapted to the seasons, shorts in the summer, lined pants to flout snow and slush.  Her workout clothes performed a strange alchemy on my alienations and discomforts in Ithaca and the East.  They dislodged the distances. They restored to me a new horizon line, not one you could see from a distance, but one you could sense on the ground, running with a friend, in a swirl of talk about love, life, teaching, reading,  thinking,  politics, art, cinema, writing.

 It was—and continues to be-- a kind of necessary and urgent sisterhood,  subverting the insidious architectures of the academy that wanted us docile, alone, distraught.

Through shared sweat, we pushed our legs and hearts to somewhere else, an elsewhere that is nowhere in space but somewhere in time, pounded out by foot and by arm in walking and running and doing aerobics and African dance and yoga and elliptical machines.   Most of the theoretical ideas shoring up my own writing emerged from our conversations and debates motored by exercise.  With Zillah, sweat and ideas, legs and arms and analysis, need each other the way a bed of irises needs weeding in April to see the flowers breaking out in May.

My bond with Zillah exceeds friendship.

If one can share a DNA and become sisters through the shared rituals of body sweat and mind work,  then we are related in ways that science can not identify.

Our connection centers on these nodal points where our bodies move through spaces and histories together. At these precarious and delicate transitory points,  loneliness, illness, political struggles, and loss get smashed down to nothing by shared sweat and conversation.

We are costumed like warriors in our workout clothes. Here, workout clothes become something more than a way to work the body and purge it. They bring us to that place that destroys distance and hills, a node where bodies thrive despite all challenges, where words and muscles fuse, and where a sun not found in the sky pounds away the gray.



June 2012




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