Over ice cream once, a babysitter told me that staring at people is rude. I had no idea. I was a wild-haired tomboy with perpetually skinned knees, and manners weren't exactly my strongpoint.
Growing up on a farm in Oregon, there weren't many people around. The animals outnumbered the humans 10-fold, so when a person did come knocking on our unlocked door, there was always some degree of shock.
"There's someone at the door?" my sister and I would say.
That kind of isolation really put a damper on my people-watching hobby. The closest "neighbors" to spy on were over a fence and across a four-acre field. They drank beer from cans and shot birds with guns.
In the summer, when the grass was tall, I would creep through the field and watch them. They wore flannel shirts, barbequed at lunchtime, and shouted swear words at each other. It was fascinating.
The way we lived, by Danville standards, was pretty hickish. We had a chicken coop and a stubborn donkey who served no real purpose, other than to mope around and be our aloof pet.
One spring day, my mom brought home a potbelly pig she had named Packwood, after Oregon state Sen. Bob Packwood.
The politician had recently been charged with sexually harassing his staff and the joke was that he was "a male chauvinist pig." My mom thought it was funny, anyway.
As I got older, I remember being embarrassed to invite my friends over. We were a different type of family, a breed of hippie-hick. And back then, I didn't realize that different could be cool. So the farm became even more of an island.
Still, it wasn't like I never saw other people. There was school, restaurants sometimes, and small stretches of suburban life at friends' houses. These were prime times for my hobby.
At school, I would study kids at the lunch table. I wondered why some kids came to school with no lunch, while others had moms who packed smiley-face notes with their three-course meals.
At restaurants, I noticed the waitresses. I wondered why one had purple bags under her eyes and another had a big, booming laugh.
I wanted to know their stories. So I started to ask.
Strangely enough, most people didn't mind telling me. I couldn't believe it.
Fifteen years later, not much has changed. Noticing people, asking them questions and telling their stories is a big part of what a journalist does. You're paid to be inquisitive - even nosy at times.
Now, I pass my staring off as "observing." And I keep trying to perfect the casual-look-away when people do catch me. (The goal: to come off curious instead of creepy.)
They say when you're choosing a career, you're supposed to pretend like you just won the lottery, that you'll never need money again. The idea is that, this way, you'll pick a job you love and want to do. Not something you think you should do.
Sure, it's not the most pragmatic way to plan your life. But my parents were idealists and encouraged me to think this way, at least when it came to picking a college major.
As far I could tell, there was no such thing as a major in people-watching. So I narrowed it down to psychology and journalism. I'm a better writer than scientist, so the rest is history.
Writing and reporting for the Danville Weekly for the last two years has rarely felt like work.
I've met all kinds of incredible characters: Alamo country bumpkins at heart, like me. Eccentric artists. Slick politicians. Wealthy playboys. Jovial war vets. Angry mothers.
Alamo and Danville are full of stories. I've loved hearing them and sharing them in print. And I hope that in some way, on some issue, I helped make things better around here.
Now, I'm off to Miami to write for another weekly - and to meet a whole new cast of characters. I'm hoping the folks in Florida don't think staring is rude.
Thanks for telling me your stories.
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