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.