Ah Sweet Misremembered Youth

This is an excerpt taken from the editor’s note of the August 1986 edition of Analog: Science Fiction, Science Fact magazine. Analog is one of the longest running science fiction literature magazines, and authors from Timothy Zahn (of Star Wars Expanded Universe fame) to Isaac Asimov have written for them.

I found this issue in an antique shop in Seattle, and the message here really spoke to me. I wasn’t able to find a copy of it online, and I think this is something people should be more aware of:


“Once upon a time there was a little town in the midst of a sea of fertile farmland. it had a downtown - not a big one, to be sure, or truly bustling, by cosmic standards; but a central district where a few main highways came together and townsfolk and farmers from the surrounding countryside converged to do business. One day this town decided to make all its downtown streets one-way - and many onlookers, both residents and outsiders passing through, wondered why. It didn’t seem to them that the actual volume of traffic required such action, and in fact the resulting confusion seemed more of a headache than the “congestion” the new arrangement was supposed to alleviate. Some of these perplexed observers thought the matter over at some length, and the best explanation they could come up with for a tranquil little town’s making its streets one-way was this. Much as a little girl might like to dress up in her mother’s clothes because it makes her feel “like a big girl,” a little city might adopt big-city traffic patterns to make itself feel like a big city.

A bit far-fetched, you may say, but several years later I still haven’t heard a better explanation. Admittedly such analogies between the behavior of individual organisms and that of social units are imperfect, at best. There are such obvious differences as the fact that the decision to make streets one-way was made by a few individuals, not by the town as a whole (though that difference may not be as great as it appears, since the little girl’s decision to dress up was made by a similarly small group of her cells). In any case, there are also clear similarities in the behaviors of organisms at individual and group levels. It can be at least mildly entertaining, and perhaps even instructive, to look at what they are.

The one I’m particularly thinking about today concerns a common tendency among adults which you’ve probably noticed in others and very likely exhibited at least occasionally in yourself. How often have you heard an adult beset by some problem like taxes or work pressures of family responsibilities sigh nostalgically that he wishes he were back in his childhood, without any worries? I’ve heard it often - and I’ve always considered it a clear sign that the adult’s memory of childhood is, at best, exceedingly vague. Any child could remind you that childhood is anything but carefree. Every day is filled with concerns like what’s-my-teacher-going-to-do-to-me-if-I-forget-my-book-report and is-that-bully-going-to-catch-me-on-the-way-to-school and am-I-growing-up-the-way-I-should and why-don’t-boys-like-me.


“Ah,” the adult smiles wistfully, “but those are such TRIVIAL problems compared to mine!To which I reply, with all possible respect, hogwash. The measure of a problem is not how big it is compared to somebody else’s, but how big it is compared to your own perception of your ability to solve it. In those terms, a child’s problems are not one whit less formidable than an adult’s, and they may even be far more so. (Especially when you consider that the current crop of children are exposed to an unprecedented amount of information about current events and are well aware that many adult problems directly affect them, but are completely beyond their control.) A child’s problems may loom large primarily because he lacks the perspective to accurately judge their real seriousness. If he’s lucky, by adulthood he will be able to evaluate them more realistically and thus be less likely to let his worries get out of proportion to their causes (though many adults, alas, are not that lucky).The article goes on to talk about how this applies at a cultural and global level, which is just as important, but for another time. What do you think of this editor’s note? Do you agree? Disagree?

Written on January 1, 2009