The Non-Expert

People Watcher

Experts answer what they know. The Non-Expert answers anything. This week we help a college student out of her end-of-school doledrums by suggesting a hobby both interesting and adventurous, but that sometimes skirts the wrong side of the law.

Have a question? Need some advice? Ignored by everyone else? Send us your questions via email. The Non-Expert handles all subjects and is updated on Fridays, and is written by a member of The Morning News staff.


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Question: I’m about to start my last semester at college. There’s no way I won’t graduate (I don’t think so anyway), but I’m bored out of my mind and I can hardly bring myself to go to class. Any tips for making these final months bearable? And yes, I live in the dorms. —Amy

Answer: What you need right now is a hobby—something to distract you for a few hours a week and alleviate the seeming meaninglessness of the rest of the semester. However, I do understand the difficultly of pursuing outside interests while you’re a student. And living in a dormitory also sets severe limits to your hobbying—you will discover your jugs of moonshine drained in the morning by girly girls who “just want to take a bath” and your noise band can’t get off the ground because five minutes into practice your RA busts in to inform you that she’s called campus police and, “By the way, Lightning Bolt sucks.”

Crushing, isn’t it? It’s true: Few people can say how painful the last year of college can be. Otherwise, how could you explain grad school?

But just because you’re assured graduation, make no mistake: Your bored state is a dangerous one. On campus, it’s far too easy to spot the poster with the open call for Oklahoma! auditions and think, “Gee, I’ve never tried a university production before…” Three months later you will find yourself with neither personal dignity nor spare time since you’ve pledged both to a group of kids who grumble about your “reckons” not sounding real. So it is first and foremost necessary to get yourself off campus.

Out here in the real world your tunnel vision will quickly dissipate. Take a walk through a residential neighborhood. See that guy shoveling his driveway? He doesn’t care that after four years of studio art you still can’t draw a worthwhile nose. And that lady taking out her garbage? She doesn’t know that you thought George Eliot was a man all the way through midterms. And what’s more, she doesn’t care.

Watching people who either don’t know you (or even believe your major exists) can be therapeutic. It introduces you to entirely new ways of seeing and thinking. So long as you haven’t had legal issues with it in the past, I would recommend you take up an interest in stalking, or to put a kinder point on it: concentrated people-watching.

As a student, you will appreciate how stalking is eerily similar to reading narrative fiction. Through the experiences of another you discover a way to understand your life better and it causes you to change. It’s real-life characterization! Stalking will bring you closer to finding out who you are, what you are doing with your life, and let you know that you are not alone in asking questions that academia will never answer, including, “Why does the boy who works the express lane shut his blinds as soon as he gets home every night?”

There are many ways you can go about watching someone and I’m sure after a few sessions you will find your own peculiar brand of observation. However, I suggest avoiding student hangouts. That, after all, is an area you are already familiar with and the idea here is to stalk something outside of the life you inhabit. Here are a few of my favorite haunts.

The Video Rental Store

There is a girl with platinum blonde hair, snow boots, and black, thick-rimmed glasses. She lingers over the Brian DePalma section for a long time before marching back to David Cronenberg to pluck out Dead Ringers without even looking first. She’s checked it out twice since I’ve started coming here. I wonder how many times she’s seen it in total. Sometimes after renting a video she gets coffee to go from the Moroccan café down the street. She tries to drink it while she walks but has to take tiny pauses in order to get it to her lips.

Could she be Daisy Miller? Impulsive, uninformed, and predictably offbeat? She likes to make big displays when she sees someone she knows on the street. I imagine she wants to be looked at but is too stupidly aloof to notice the people who do. I suspect I’ve done that before too.

The Laundromat

Last week I discovered that the guy with the scuffed Velcro shoes and ratty, red scarf, who rides the 5:15 p.m. bus has a girlfriend. She wears red tights and has the same shoes as me. He can read French; he reads it while he waits for his laundry. He also reads books in French on the bus. They are about music, but I’m only guessing.

I saw his girlfriend kiss him on the street. I bet when she moves in he thinks, “So, this is Love!” Then he wonders, like me, like Emma Bovary, if it truly is and if that’s ever possible to know. My arms and my insides shake painfully when I’m around a guy I like, that is unless I’m drunk or I become comfortable around him, and then I have doubts it’s love. Which is funny, because the shaking really hurts.

The Liquor Store

On Friday afternoons a well-dressed couple buys wine. He brings a wine connoisseur magazine and she reads labels aloud. She prefers the red; he’d rather they go for the white. They never look at each other, just at the magazine or at the labels. They pass through aisles side by side talking, never once exchanging glances. I track them as Brick and Maggie the Cat, just waiting to for the tin roof to get hot. She is always kind; there must be a reason he won’t look at her. How long can a routine of non-communication last?

The Gifts and Housewares Store

She doesn’t work as many hours as she used to but the girl with the sharp cheekbones is still there. I noticed her because of the pendant on her necklace: a large insect cast in what looks like cloudy quartz. It’s not particularly pretty—the necklace—but it must be some sort of touchstone because she’s laying her long fingers across it every three seconds as if it might crawl off her collarbone at any moment. Still, that ugly thing assures her better than words and I can’t help but think she’s a character straight out of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

In a few minutes I have to leave; the pendant is so grotesque and her constant groping for it makes me queasy. Pushing through the glass door I press “play” on my Walkman and wait for the background whirrrr to begin so my stomach can settle.

The Pond

On sunny days the lanky blonde boy with greasy hair leaves the library to take a walk around the nearby pond. He reads a lot of crumbly books that need to be rebound but he doesn’t seem to mind them falling apart in his hands. Perhaps that’s why he chooses them; they give him something to be gentle with. Stepping down the hill toward the water he looks very proud and profoundly sad. With a top hat he could be a young Newland Archer.

I have to admit that there have been times when I thought about coming out from trees to tackle him, screaming, “Fuck tradition! Screw social roles! You love Ellen, do not let her go!” But that would break the spell, blow my cover, and likely land me in jail. And it wouldn’t do a thing to change the outcome of The Age of Innocence.

Again, these are only a few ways to watch. Get out there; be creative and adventurous! I’ll be sure to look for you.