I'm not going to dissect Judith Warner today. Her usual classist sentimentality and gender anxiety will have the NY Times women crying in their coffee (though I have to say, it just isn't that difficult to get your work done and get a pedicure--or to say the hell with the work and just get the damn pedicure), but she's also onto something with her return to high school.
It's a numerical fact that 25th high school reunions occur when people are in their 40s, right in the middle of--or ripe for--midlife crises. But numbers can't be the only reason half the women I know are yearning for the men who were the boys they knew in high school, or so many escape fantasies bear a distinct resemblance to high school, with its seemingly-blissful combination of relative independence and general lack of responsibilities.
But surrounded as I am by teenagers, I have right in front of me the pain of high school along with the pleasure. Looking for a job, caring for a newborn while trying to go to school, fighting with parents, studying for SATS, worrying about grades and college. Have we forgotten all that?
I haven't. I remember being hopelessly depressed. I remember the night my boyfriend broke up with me and I had one of the worst sunburns of my life--I don't know if I've ever been so distraught. But I also remember driving out to the pond with my friends, music blasting, and being perhaps as happy as I've ever been in my life.
I wonder if one of the reasons the idea of high school appeals today is that back then, pain was so painful, but pleasure was so pleasurable, and each was its own. I see this in the teenagers around me: when they are playing basketball, or listening to music, or laughing with their friends, nothing else exists, and they forget completely about the difficulties and challenges.
Whereas, in your 40s, nothing ever goes away. It's all mixed up, the pleasure and the pain. Even holding a newborn, which I count as one of the most joyful experiences of my life, is fraught with responsibility, the fragility of life, and the big picture. Those of us caught in the everpresent press of children, parents, work, home can be as happy as we can be sad, but we can never fully escape.
There is a certain purity to high school--a cleanness of lines, despite all the messiness--and that, I think, is what we yearn for.