When I was a ten years old, summers meant long lazy and sometimes boring days with nothing to do but explore, read and get into unscheduled adventures. Things have changed since then, and if I were a kid today I would be driven from activity to activity with little time left over for where boredom might lead me. I’m in favor of a little unscheduled boredom from time to time as well as for the adventures and misadventures that can arise from ennui (a lovely word for boredom).
We did not have air-conditioning when I grew up in Hayward, California, a smallish bedroom community in the East Bay Area. So, with my father away at work in San Francisco from early morning to dinnertime and my mother cleaning, napping, shopping or insisting that I get some reading done in advance of school in the fall, I was relatively free to wander around unencumbered.
These were still the days when kid gangs were free to spring up all over the neighborhood and where popularity was both defined and amorphous. We formed small and sometimes cruel archetypes of adulthood where one week you were in the group and the next you were suddenly adrift, culled out from the herd by that week’s leader.
During my weeks as the outsider I alternated between reading in the back yard of our small house on Regal Avenue (when my mother chased me out of my bedroom to get some fresh air) and a game that I believed was my own invention: the penny hike.
The rules of the penny hike were simple. I walked out my front door and flipped a penny, heads I turned left, tails I turned right. At each corner I flipped the coin again. After a few hikes I began carrying paper and a pencil in the pocket of my shorts and writing down how many times the coin came up heads and how many times it came up tails and therefore how many rights and lefts I took. I noted how many times I ended up circling the block and how many blocks I ended up traveling until the penny arbitrarily led me home. Sometimes I was gone all day and in those glorious unencumbered, long, hot boring days of summer no one was particularly worried unless I missed lunch or dinner. As my mother’s choice of lunch was usually the dreaded pimento cheese sandwich on white bread and a Twinkie (I preferred Hostess Chocolate Cupcakes) I generally preferred the punishment to lunch, particularly as punishment meant staying in my room and reading a book.
Towards the end of my first penny hike summer, well before teenage-hood, a longing for boys and a wish to leap over adolescence headlong into adulthood took over, I had a notebook filled with penny-patterns, which I tried to interpret. I became fascinated with where chance would lead me. How many times would I arrive home faster than I anticipated, after which the rules of penny hike demanded that I stay at home reading. How many times would I get lost and how many times would I discover something interesting when I did get lost? My notebook was filled with patterns that I was fascinated with but could not decipher.
My mother never asked me what I did on my long days wandering the neighborhood, but in those days mothers did not ask those sorts of things being happy to have their children out from underfoot for several hours a day. My only obligation in those years was to take swimming lessons for two weeks at the beginning of the summer so that I would know how to swim in case, as my father said, I ever fell into the ocean and no one heard me screaming for help. Despite the odds against this ever happening in landlocked Hayward, I took swimming lessons very seriously and dutifully walked the ten blocks to the high school pool where they took place wearing my one piece blue bathing suit, carrying my towel and wearing the ever-embarrassing white bathing cap with my long brown hair shoved up inside of it.
I sometimes managed to sneak in a penny hike after swim lessons by inventing a rule; if a penny were discovered on the sidewalk on the way home I was required to begin a penny hike with it. As this happened more often that I would have anticipated I began noting the times a penny was discovered on my walk home on my pad of paper.
As fall and thus the beginning of school approached that first penny hike summer I became bored with the aimless and self-imposed rules and began fudging the results of the coin flip. If something interesting beckoned from the right and the penny directed me to go left, I would continue to flip the coin until it agreed with my choice. I dutifully entered these altered outcomes in my notebook, including how many times I needed to flip the coin until my preferred direction was presented.
The summer I was ten years old was the summer I fell in love with research, though I did not know it at the time. I did not realize that I was observing chance, as well as observing the effect of bias on the outcome of an experiment. This observance of bias at an early stage in my life helped make me stalwart in the pursuit of neutrality.
I do know that those long, lazy, hot, sticky, mostly unsupervised summers unencumbered with schedules (other than swim lessons) led my imagination to invent the penny hike game and allowed me time to follow it wherever it might lead also leading to a lifelong love of exploration for exploration’s sake. More than the kid-gangs, games of tag, hide and go seek, visits to the dime store with my weekly allowance, ad hoc clubs, mischief, alternating best friends and crushes on this or that boy, I remember the penny hike game and long for its simplicity.
The summer I was ten years old was the first time I practiced pure research, learned to love exploration, observe trends, statistics and sought to understand it all. Even today when I need to remind myself about the joy of research for the sake of discovery as well as reminding myself of the dangers of bias, I dig out my old penny hike notebooks and observe the trends in the data.