Planning for failure

Ex-stripper judge found dead inside Nevada home.” That was the headline in my newsfeed I decided to tap on first. I felt a sense of indignity for Diana Hampton. After everything she had been through, everything she had accomplished; here she was reduced in death to just another ‘ex-stripper.’ I suppose a dead judge doesn’t make the headlines. Neither does a dead stripper, unless she gets run over by some drunk guy in a monster truck right after she gets off work (like happened in Dallas). But a stripper-judge? That’s unusual. You mean some strippers are actually smart? Damn. That’s so controversial we better make it the top hit on everybody’s newsfeed. Never mind it happened in Vegas. We better publish that shit all the way over there in Australia and god knows where else too.

When I was a girl, dreaming of becoming a rock star didn’t seem entirely unrealistic. By the time I made it to university, it wasn’t even realistic to bank on your first choice of a white collar job. I remember the first lecture in first year law. I lined up my pens and notebook, and waited for the lecturer to come out. The first thing he said when he walked into that room was “Half of you won’t be here next year. Of those of you who go on to complete your degrees, only 20% will ever work as a lawyer.” I thought about three friends who were at least a decade older than me, and had all gone to the same law faculty. Only one of them was a working lawyer. I looked around at all the other people in that room, and tried to visualize which 10% of us would be sitting in our law offices in a decades time. I decided I didn’t deserve that privilege when there were other people in the room who were certain this is what they wanted to do. I finished all of my assignments on time and maintained an 89% average. I sat the final without studying and still graduated the class with a distinction. It would be the only law class I would ever take, before joining the ranks of the initial 50% of first year law drop-outs. It would be a decision I would come to regret for most of my life to date.

There are times when I haven’t regretted the decision – but I was grappling at straws. Times like when a fellow student and friend who had completed her degree with honours/masters etc, landed a prestigious job in a New York law firm, soon after declaring she hated it, quitting law altogether, and moving back to Australia to start over. I thought, “well at least I didn’t waste the last 7 years figuring out what I didn’t want to do,”  when in fact that is precisely what I was doing. Other times I would meet an out of work lawyer on the set of a show or a movie, working for peanuts alongside me. I was pregnant, broke, and working for $50 a day plus all the free food I could cram into my mouth during set-breaks (and all the fruit and whole grains I could secretly fill my backpack up with when no one was looking). Later I would meet the female counterparts of these unfortunate victims of the recession in the back rooms of seedy Los Angeles strip clubs. They made a lot more than $50, but still couldn’t find work in their field. And so it was, that a paralysing fear came to grip me and hold me, refusing to let me go. Others had tried and failed, so why should I even try? It had, however, taken me years to get to this point of complacence, and it would take me losing everything to snap out of it.

Let us rewind. To understand how I came to wind up in this desperate situation we have to go way back to the beginning. I was always a bright student, and my greatest talent was writing. Unfortunately my favorite form was poetry, which even by the time I was beginning high school was already a dead art. Not wanting at the time to go on to an English degree, study classics, and likely wind up an editor – I decided to focus on two things: writing song lyrics (and consequently singing), and acting (something about bringing other people’s words to life appealed to me). That brought me to Western Australia, where I believed I would have a greater chance getting into The Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts than NIDA. I never considered training anywhere else. As far as I was concerned, you had a narrow enough chance at making it even if you did graduate from either of the most prestigious schools, and if you didn’t: you had none. So when I was turned down at my first audition (told to come back next year), I took it hard. I would never make it as an actor. If I wasn’t good enough to get in the first time round: I wasn’t good enough. Period. This led to a year of being completely and utterly lost, culminating in a weekend drug binge, losing my boyfriend, and my job as a daytime bartender. So off I went to law school (or at least law class).

After I dropped out of real university, I folded my single semester into an Associate Degree down the street at the Conservatorium of Music – where I didn’t have enough theory to take the Bachelor’s, and was certain I didn’t want to teach anyway. I put in minimal effort, graduating with average results, and no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I was old enough to realise (unlike most of my contemporaries) that my chances of forming a band in Hobart, Tasmania and reaching the levels of international stardom I aspired to, were slim at best. So I got a job as a dancer, saved up twenty grand, and moved to Los Angeles to have one last crack at acting. I met a man, married him, got my visa. His sister was an actress and helped me get my start in television. I worked my way all the way up to $500 a day, before my marriage failed and I found myself a single mother in one of harshest cities to be one – and worse still, an immigrant. With no government help available to me, immigration bills, and an inability to work the uncertain hours that television demanded – I retired from acting.

With a baby to feed, and nowhere to turn, I would pass a strip club everyday that stood between the supermarket and my tiny Hollywood apartment. One day I stopped and asked the man at the door for a job. A different man stuck his head out the door, and told me in a thick accent to come back after 8 O’Clock – without the baby. My sleeping infant was strapped to my chest in a baby Bjorn. I would work there for 5 years, building my way up to a luxury apartment, luxury car, seasonal work in the best club in Vegas – quite possibly the same club our ‘stripper-judge’ had worked at – and then burn-out and lose it all. I would come home, defeated I ‘couldn’t make it in LA’, and resign myself to a future as an ‘ex-stripper journalist’ – if I’m one of the lucky few.

Jim Carrey said, in an address to the Maharishi University of Management: “You can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.” In my experience, we can only fail at what we don’t really want. Yet it was a sad reality of the times, that my generation believed it necessary to plan for failure.

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