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Inertia Is the Enemy

Change, progress and my manic 20s.

Richard Downs

By Taylor Antrim

If a shark stops moving, it sinks. Without the gas-filled bladder of a bony fish, its heavy body of cartilage and organs outweighs water. A stalled shark is usually a dead shark, unable to breathe, dropping slow and oily to the ocean’s bottom.

I was thinking about sharks in Washington, D.C., last spring, sharing cocktails with a friend outside the stone and marble of the new, behemoth Ronald Reagan Building. She was catching me up on her life. She’d worked for four years in a nongovernmental organization, moving steadily upward within its ranks. She’d also recently fallen lazy and listless into a happy relationship with a guy she’d met. The combination worried her; she felt adrift. “Isn’t that scary?” she said. “It’s just contentment.”

With the boyfriend out of town, she had started concentrating on change, each idea a small detonation to her settled life in Washington: work in Africa, get an MBA, start a rock band. Something. I told her I was contemplating changes, too. I live in the most beautiful city in America, the salt-white jumble of San Francisco, and I’m moving. Why? Not because I can’t afford to live here anymore, but because inertia is the enemy.

Like my D.C. friend, I’m approaching a manic 27. I’m laying plans. Neither of us is particularly afraid of happiness, but the heaped burden of time rankles. Change is an airy, lifting corrective; change is helium. I’m used to changes. The years so far have been a series of them: high school becomes college becomes first job. Adolescence leans toward 18, toward 21; graduation leans toward grad school or professional life, toward the always ensured Next Big Thing.

But at some point the Big Things stop coming and the future settles on you like a yawn. This seems to happen somewhere between 24 (if you career-tracked your way out of college) and 30 (if you meandered a bit). It’s not necessarily unpleasant, especially if you’re fortunate enought to land a decent job. Contemplating your career ahead flattens the horizon. With an income for the first time in your life, a place to live, some tasteful IKEA products, you stretch your limbs. You anticipate your next paycheck, or performance review, or year-end bonus. This usually brings a kind of contentment. No boxes to ship, bags to pack, phone numbers to change.

Then, maybe, in the midst of this glassy, contented recline, the empty horizon becomes disconcerting. You long for neon signs, fireworks in the sky. And if you’re like me or my D.C. friend, you prepare a circus stunt, pulling a big, crazy-hued ring from that paper-flat horizon. You quit your job, say good-bye to friends; you take aim; you jump through.

It’s the mid-20s Next Big Thing: an arbitrary transition. Change for change’s sake. Each step along the way here seemed to spring from necessity—must get into college, get my degree, find a way to make a living. Now, desire rather than necessity precipitates change. Desire feeds a hungry mid-20s need for self-definition. Change and progress mark me. I am the shark who keeps swimming.

There are plenty of ways to justify change. A new job, a professional degree, travel to foreign countries: all of these can be considered practical, strategic choices. But when you’re in your mid-20s, strategy tends to lose ground to impulse, to a self-prescribed mandate: what do I want?

Of course, some people want marriage. In the past, long-term attachment has been the defining event of our 20s, but many of us have postponed that possibility. Without a husband or a wife, we’re untethered and change is a relatively easy shifting. It was not always so easy for our parents, many of whom married young, many of whom divorced in their 30s.

In John Updike’s 1960 novel Rabbit, Run, his Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, runs out on his pregnant wife and infant son. Rabbit finds relief in his sudden freedom from attachment, even as his wife collapses in alcoholism and despair. In college, the story seemed that of a far-off adulthood. I recently reread the book and was shocked to realize Rabbit’s age: 26.

I’m happy it’s not 1960; I’m happy to leave Rabbit his attachments. My context is much narrower—a bank balance, some possessions—and my sense of liberation comes from planning a simple move from one city to another. I’m leaving no one in the lurch. The trick is to avoid or ignore loneliness, concentrate on the few objectives: break inertia, fuel progress, keep moving.

Taylor Antrim,’96, is a San Francisco writer moving to New York.

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