The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Rick Mor­ton

It’s not the sort of thing the ca­reer coun­sel­lors rec­om­mend in school be­cause their re­mit is to help a child be­come em­ploy­able through prag­ma­tism. You could make money in opera but, sta­tis­ti­cally speak­ing, more peo­ple make more money from, say, boiler mak­ing. No­body knows any of this when they are five, how­ever, which is how I came to be singing falsetto un­derneath a tank stand in­fested with deadly spi­ders in the Queens­land bush, convinced of my abil­ity.

My ca­reer was cut short af­ter mak­ing a lot of arach­nids very an­gry. There was, too, the not in­signif­i­cant fact of my tal­ent. I could sing in the same way a cat could float. Disas­trously.

One is al­lowed these youth­ful di­ver­sions. A friend of mine wanted to be an ac­tual fire truck with a mort­gage when he grew up. I’m all for hav­ing goals but they should at least tar­get re­al­ism. I told him there and then he’d prob­a­bly have to set­tle for rent­ing. You re­fine these as you grow older. Some re­vise up, oth­ers down.

When my par­ents di­vorced we found our­selves liv­ing, at first, in hous­ing commission ac­com­mo­da­tion in west­ern Queens­land with the bank ac­counts frozen. Mum, who had ded­i­cated her­self to par­ent­hood in re­mote Aus­tralia, found her­self thrust into the labour mar­ket with few skills. She found work and raised three chil­dren un­der the age of nine on her own. We danced along the poverty line for the next 1½ decades, at all times fully aware no one was com­ing to save us. It was a short drop from there into home­less­ness and an un­break­able cy­cle of debt and stress. So we danced.

I turned 30 this week. This isn’t about get­ting old, as such. Ev­ery­one is the old­est they have been on any given day. Nev­er­the­less, a per­son who has never known the sound of a dial-up mo­dem can never be con­sid­ered old, as a rule. It’s an age ripe for re­flec­tion, an as­sess­ment of how things came to be.

There is, in the fur­nace of poverty, a pe­cu­liar kind of am­bi­tion. Its defin­ing fea­ture is des­per­a­tion; to never go back and al­ways be mov­ing for­ward, for­ward, for­ward. Es­cape ve­loc­ity. So when I am caught in weaker mo­ments talk­ing about be­ing “old”, I am ar­rang­ing an equa­tion. Time past, dis­tance cov­ered. There are grey hairs com­ing in at my tem­ples and I take af­ter­noon naps like I take my parac­eta­mol — two at a time — but that’s just bi­ol­ogy, ain’t it?

Those raised poor and for whom liv­ing day to day was a strug­gle grow up with a re­duced ca­pac­ity to han­dle stress. They pro­duce less cor­ti­sol in their bod­ies. Re­searchers have shown gene ex­pres­sion is changed by the en­durance of these early bat­tles. What­ever else may hap­pen in life, the body re­mem­bers.

Many have it worse than I did. I’m re­lated to some of them. Still, at an el­e­men­tal level, I am that poor boy. I knew how much the house­hold bills were be­fore I got my pen li­cence.

So I turned 30 this week and ran the num­bers. Time. Dis­tance. Speed. Have I done enough? Earned enough? Been enough? If you take a look at the way peo­ple move be­tween in­come ranges, very few of them move off the bot­tom rung. Con­versely, it takes a lot of ef­fort to lose your top-rank­ing sta­tus and fall a bit. Peo­ple come and go through­out the mid­dle sec­tions: the vot­ers for whom elec­tions are fought.

I have a friend who grew up in sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances and, in adult­hood, she in­su­lates her­self with an ob­ses­sive re­gard for the power of the bud­get spread­sheet and a knack for talk­ing about fi­nances at par­ties. The other op­tion, re­vealed in stud­ies, is that a per­son grows up view­ing money as tran­sient. It never stays for long, so en­joy it while you can. I am very much a stu­dent of this lat­ter school, ever con­scious that what­ever space I have cre­ated be­tween my child­hood and me is eas­ily cov­ered in a stum­ble.

The fas­ci­na­tion with opera evap­o­rated even­tu­ally. An en­dur­ing love for palaeon­tol­ogy su­per­seded it be­fore I re­alised I’d make more money scratch­ing around in the dirt if I was look­ing for iron ore in the Pil­bara. It’s funny be­cause I set­tled on writ­ing and jour­nal­ism. These are as much a fi­nan­cial plan as scream­ing at an ATM or set­ting fire to $50 notes in a bath­tub.

There was no rea­son to be­lieve this blind con­fi­dence would pay off but I’ve since learned one thing. That is all it ever takes to dance.

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