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    Wednesday, February 6, 2013

    By Helene "Michael Finnegan" Gresser

    I recently had a dear friend talk to me honestly about some of my bad habits. I love this woman like my sister, and have known her since I was in first grade. She is the reason I decided to get my real estate license. She is successful, smart, disciplined, empathetic, funny, sexy, and incredibly generous. I have always looked up to her. And I have disappointed her. The honest talk she had with me came from such a loving place I could no longer pretend that I was getting away with my worst traits.

    I have always been disorganized. I am often late. I do not prioritize well. And my focus – well, let’s just say that I am all over the place. The bad habits started around the time I reached middle school. Maybe the habits were always there, but it started to affect my schoolwork when I became involved not only with several extra-curricular activities (Student Council President! Drama class! Voice lessons! Ballet! Track! Cheerleading! Basketball!) but also when I became highly interested in pursuing the opposite sex - such fun distractions from boring old research papers with first drafts and notecards and such. I had always been an excellent student, and I was suddenly “not achieving my potential.” 

    Apparently I tested well in all those weird IQ-like Scantron tests (number 2 pencils only!) and I was supposed to be excelling at everything, except maybe math, which flummoxed me since we started fractions in fourth grade. But I was not excelling. I was all over the place.
    It got worse in high school, though I hid my failures well by being a class president multiple times, joining every activity I could, and speaking easily in the classroom discussions during Literary Criticism and Anthropology. I could always improvise like a motherfucker. I was confident speaking publicly. I was in every play and musical I could get into. But I was getting Cs and Ds and failing Algebra. By the time I was a senior, as my close friends were contemplating which ivy league schools they would attend, I was left with two choices for college, the University of Wisconsin because I was in-state and it would be fairly inexpensive, and Bowling Green State University, where my dad was a professor and I could get tuition waived. I wanted to go to Brown, or Amherst, or Dartmouth and study literature and psychology and theater alongside my peers. But we were not rich, and my grade point average was C+. I was not getting a scholarship anywhere. I went to BGSU.

    I got into the Honors program because I tested well and was able to skip Freshman English. I had some terrific professors. I auditioned and got leads in plays. And I was forever late with my homework, last to memorize my lines for a show, failing Biology twice (it was an 8 a.m. class!) and getting so many Incompletes that by my second semester Sophomore year I had a zero GPA. ZERO. I had been stupidly signing up for 18 credits worth of classes a semester, being in every play and musical, and working three jobs since my grades were poor and my dad said I’d have to pay for my dorm and board and books myself until I proved that I was serious about school. I was all over the place.

    I took a year off of school, worked as a nanny in Chappaqua, New York, and then quit that job so I could be in Manhattan and see if I could pursue acting, my passion. But I had to work so hard at waitressing and babysitting that I had neither the energy nor money to take classes or audition. I naively interviewed with the famed Sanford Meisner to see if I could attend his Master Class in the Virgin Islands. Lord, what was I THINKING? Meisner looked at me, at my silly headshot and college theater resume and said into his voice box machine (he’d had a tracheotomy due to throat cancer) “Go back to school.”

     I went back to BGSU after a year in NYC, buckled down and got better grades and then blew up my world around graduation by breaking off with my loving fiancĂ© and moving to Athens, Ohio to live with a guy I thought I loved and who wrote me nice poems. He was a grad student at Ohio University. I worked as a waitress and had a near nervous breakdown when I realized that my new relationship was doomed the minute we moved in together, and I could not go back to my fiancĂ© because he got married very suddenly, six months after our break-up. I was a mess. In this flailing state, I decided to audition for the MFA program in Acting at OU. I was an alternate choice, but I got in.

    Grad school was three years. Three looong years.  I was psychologically torn apart by all my fuck-ups, and grad school did not help. I did not memorize my monologues, was never chosen for mainstage plays, and was criticized for my lack of discipline and focus. My acting teacher told me “You have a fear of success.” I feared everything. I did not want to get up in front of my studio and show my audition pieces, I was so afraid of being judged. I skipped a rehearsal for a small play I was in to drive to Cleveland and say goodbye to a man I had fallen for (and who was not in love with me,) and I was put on academic probation. Until my final year, an internship at Cleveland PlayHouse, I was sure everyone thought me a real fuck-up. A New York actress playing Anne Frank (I was playing the thankless role of Margot, her sister,) took me aside and said “You deserve to be on this stage. You could be playing Anne. Don’t think you don’t have what it takes. You do. Believe in yourself.” I did not.

    Somehow, I graduated with my MFA. I moved to NYC. I had no idea where to start, how to get an acting job, and had no money. But I endured, got a well-paid job at a financial firm, kept getting raises, and happily left that security for a touring children’s show. My audition had apparently been good enough to have me called back for nine of their shows. I had validation at last. I had my Equity card. I toured eight times. I made little money, saved none, but I was working as an actress.

    September 11th happened. I was in NYC rehearsing what would be my final tour of Charlotte’s Web and one of our cast members lost his father in the towers. I was grateful to be out of the city a couple of weeks after the disaster, but my being was shaken to the core. I was afraid of everything again. Afraid of noises and orange alerts and planes flying low. And after the tour was over, there was no part-time work in the city. Since that time I have had several jobs, few of them paid acting gigs. I started doing stand-up to have an outlet, but I had no plan. I once went on a date with a man who asked me what my “five-year plan” was, like a damn job interview.  But I’ve never had a five-year plan. I was stumped. And I felt like a child.

    People who make a success of themselves have plans, focus, drive, discipline, and usually talent.

    I think I have talent. But that doesn’t mean shit if you don’t have a fucking road map and gas in the car. My beloved friend from grade school was telling me this: Get your shit together, girl. Stop with the excuses, the fumfering around and drive the damn car in the direction you need to go to get to your destination. Quit waiting for a magic carpet to sweep you up and away because that ain’t how it works in this world. Decide what you want to do, to be, and work hard at it, every day.  And if your heart isn’t in it, don’t do it. Do something else that will give you what you need. Find your purpose. Look at the horizon instead of the ground as you go.

    Time to grow the fuck up, even if that means I decide to pursue something completely new. Or if I decide to take my creative pursuits seriously, then just DO IT. Do something resembling ANYTHING.


    Begin again.


  2. 5 comments:

    1. ...the horizon instead of the ground. i like that a lot. much of what you go through is not foreign to me at all. oy. i say that a lot too.

    2. JenHeyden said...

      Breathless reading this. Yes. Yes indeed. Hard to believe its worth saving yourself when others are so good at asking, that's my thing. Barb Gensler told me yesterday, when I posted online that the answer to happiness is lowering the bar. She said "No! To be successful, the first thing to do is to fall in love with your work!"

    3. Anonymous said...

      Beautifully expressed. And I see so many parallels to my own life it's a bit daunting. Personally, I've come to believe that the key is finding the difference between the level of success that you think will make you happy, and the level that will actually make you happy. The former is usually much higher than the latter.
      Or at least that's what I think today. Tomorrow, who knows? My philosophy changes more often than an incontinent toddler. Que sera sera.

    4. Spleen said...

      Thank you all for reading my blentry, and for your comments expressing kinship. It helps me to know many of us struggle with fuzzy focus and ADD and general fucking up. We just keep on keepin' on.

    5. She So Funny said...

      Fumfering. Love it. And I think we could be tied in the organization category.


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