I went in search of soup.
This past Thursday, on the first day of the Association for Gerontology in Higher Education Conference in St. Petersburg, Florida, I woke up quite sick. When I say I “woke up” that implies that I had actually slept the night before, and if I did, it wasn’t for long and it wasn’t restful. I never like being sick, I often struggle with my embodiment, with my inherent physical frailty (whether from the normal stuff we all face as humans – cold, flu, sleep deprivation, etc. – or as the result of my own peculiar injuries and conditions that have composed my bodily history over the past forty-six years). But being sick when I’m essentially alone and far away from home (and have work to do) isn’t my favorite scenario. By which I mean: It sucks.
In the early afternoon – it took me a couple of hours to get myself showered, dressed, and stabilized physically enough to leave my hotel room– I went to check in for the conference, and then I went in search of soup, because the only thing I could imagine eating was some hot brothy soup. I didn’t feel up to leaving the hotel and walking around lovely St. Petersburg searching for soup, soaking up some Florida sun (a sun that seems quite different from the Oregon sun, though I know they are actually the same sun experienced in different contexts. Interesting.). So I went to the hotel restaurant instead.
As I was shown to my table by the restaurant hostess – She was wearing a bright orange linen suit and peep-toe sling-back heels! Welcome to Florida! — I noticed that all of the tables in the back part of the restaurant had placards on them indicating that they were “reserved.” I wondered if perhaps there was a lunch meeting associated with the conference and I’d get to see some of my colleagues as they wandered in. I asked about soup options and there weren’t any I could eat so I ordered some grilled fish with red peppers and some tea. I tried to peruse the conference schedule, realizing as I did that in my viral daze I had misremembered the day of my presentation – I didn’t have until Saturday to pull myself together, I had until Friday morning, less than 24 hours. Yikes.
As I sat drinking my tea I felt just underneath my slightly fevered skin the jangly energy that signals to me that I’m starting to panic. When the hostess passed by my table I asked her if I might have a glass of the house white wine – a pinot grigio, I think I’d over-heard someone else order – and decided that I’d treat this first day of the conference as if I was vacationing: I’d have a glass of wine with lunch, take a long nap in the afternoon, and spend the evening watching a movie instead of working (I’d have rather gone to a museum, taken a long walk on the shore, and attended the opening plenary session for the conference). I also did the trick that I sometimes have to do when I begin to feel nervous, anxious, not up to what life is asking of me – I shifted my albeit wavering focus away from myself and on the other creatures around me.
What happened next is that a large pack of older Floridians came pouring into the restaurant. I watched smaller clusters and pairs of them wind their way through the reserved area, scoping out the perfect seats. I estimate the size of the pack to be around 45 or 50. Would you be surprised to hear the pack was composed mostly of women? I think I saw at most five men, and all but one appeared to be partnered with a woman (I overhead the hostess make a joke as she showed a gentleman who came in late to the only open seat at a table quite close to mine where three women were already sitting: Oh, ladies, how lucky you are to have this handsome gentleman join you!). I tried not to eavesdrop too much and even if I wanted to I couldn’t really do so as there was quite a happy din, so much excited energy in the room. I was surrounded by layers and waves of laughter and chatting.
By now I’d almost forgotten to feel sorry for myself and my woeful state as my curiosity was growing about who these folks were, why they were eating in the restaurant, whether they lived in St. Petersburg or were just visiting, and whether they were part of a retirement community or club or…. I didn’t want to infect any of them with the virus that’d overcome me so I decided to forego wandering over to their side of the restaurant to say “hello” and ask them what’s what. So instead I just enjoyed sipping my wine and, in a relaxed (and hopefully unobtrusive) way, observing the various sorts of embodied human energy represented in the pack.
There were two women in particular who arrested my attention because of how they looked and what they were doing. The first was tiny, had short red hair and dressed in jeans, cropped linen jacket, and stylish but comfortable shoes. She moved quickly and confidently; from the back she looked like a pre-adolescent girl and from the front a great-grandmother. She flitted nervously from the front of the restaurant to the back and from table-to-table. She seemed to be checking on how things were going and making sure everyone was having a grand time as they waited for their gourmet hamburgers, club sandwiches, French fries, iced teas and coffees.
The second woman, who came to the luncheon late, tottered and swerved a bit as she walked slowly and tentatively past my table. She was quite stately—tall and willowy—and had an incredible deeply lined face and spiky dyed black hair. Her outfit was spectacular (I was envious!)! She might as well have been just coming from or going to a rock concert: tight jeans, black boots, leather jacket, lots of edgy jewelry. She really stood out in that room, at least to me.
I found myself fascinated as well as jarred by these two women’s externalized identities. I found myself wondering about the complex semiotics of their “looks,” their costuming and comportment, old bodies adorned with clothing and accessories associated in popular culture with youth, not maturity. I wondered about the degree of intentionality on the part of these two women—for whom were they dressing? Were they continuing in old age to dress in the style they’d always dressed as adult women? Or were these styles adopted in their post-work, post child-rearing years as statements of personal agency? How might their outsides connect to their insides? In other words, what about their singular selfhoods were they trying to convey through their costuming?
When the waitress came to my table to check on me I asked her if she knew the back-story for the pack of loud and rambunctious elders. She gleefully said she’d sleuth for me and report back soon. In the meanwhile I finished my wine and continued to absorb as much as I could as I watched tablemates lean into each other during conversation, one woman’s face so expressive and signaling curiosity and interest, another woman’s face mask-like, expressionless. I noted to myself that to a person the pack’s style of dress communicated leisure and affluence (though no one was as edgy as the rock star I described previously): men in the ubiquitous golf shirt, chinos and sturdy shoes combo, women in dark rinse jeans or light slacks, flowy sweaters or deconstructed linen jackets. Like beacons signaling me, I detected several silver or white heads-of-hair, but mostly I detected the fine work of professional colorists.
Soon my co-conspirator came back to give me the scoop. The pack of elders was from Sarasota and visiting St. Petersburg in order to attend Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition at the Mahaffey Theater. They had come to St. Petersburg on a tour bus and their trip to the museum was preceded by lunch at the hotel restaurant, as the hotel is right across the street from the museum.
I’m not a terribly good judge of the specific chronological age of another creature, but quite possibly had my co-conspirator not had to work as a waitress in the hotel restaurant she would have been a member of the pack of elders about to go to the Titanic exhibition. I also thought about my mommy who longs to (and deserves to) “retire,” to have a post-work period of her life course, a time of leisure not labor. I was too sick to go much more deeply with my analysis, beyond acknowledging to myself that I was watching in real time the enactment of different outcomes in later life, outcomes associated with – often determined by—gender, marital status, class, race, education…time/place/space…and good (or not so good) fortune.
Despite feeling quite puny, hanging out at the edges of the pack’s luncheon, taking some time do engage in gero-punk observation and reflection, gave me a shot of inspiration for my impending workshop session.
One of the guiding questions for the collaborative inquiry session I facilitated the next morning was: What is it that we think we are doing when we are “doing” gerontology? More specifically, I asked, given the wide variety of interests and activities and academic disciplines and professional fields represented just in educational gerontology alone, how might we conceptualize and make sense of what it means to be a “gerontologist”?
I also asked: What shared commitment dwells at the heart of our work? A particular fascination with and curiosity about age, aging, and later life (Such, for instance, that we spend an hour observing a pack of elders eating lunch in a hotel restaurant?)? A special interest in the complex and various ways humans travel through the life course and enact old age? An unshakable commitment to working to ensure that old age is good for everyone despite who they are, where they live, and what they have? That all humans have the conditions for and chance to fully develop and flourish in later life, whatever that means to each individual?
I went in search of soup. Instead I got the scoop on a pack of old Floridians with whom I had the great fortune of sharing an hour of my life simultaneously forgetting myself and remembering why I came to St. Petersburg to begin with.