In Memoriam – Lee Billings

I met Lee Billings sometime in 2001, in the Cranky Editors group on LiveJournal. Lee was well-spoken, intelligent, and assertive; she was also friendly and genuinely cared about her friends, and while optimistic she was also a realist. She knew what was possible and what it took to make things happen. She was also unashamed to be a feminist, and didn’t care if people thought she was “outspoken.” She was also one of the few people I knew who would hold firm to her beliefs, but was willing to assess and adjust her beliefs when she had new information. She was definitely not rigid in her ideals, but she held firm to what she knew was right and just.

We met in person at some point that year and she invited me to the Sunday lunch group she attended, also known as “Bagels.” What struck me most about Lee was that she wasn’t afraid to be loud and to make her opinions known. I was accustomed to dancing around difficult subjects, hiding my opinions, and preferring to “be nice” instead. Where I was afraid of being seen as “too aggressive,” Lee was afraid of being seen as a pushover and having people trample her beliefs.

Lee was a positive example in my life when I needed one. She was always willing to give me good advice and listen to me, even when I didn’t want advice or didn’t think I needed it. Lee was practical in advising me through difficult situations, and was never one to merely say, “It’s okay. Don’t worry about it.” We shared common backgrounds in family life, and she understood where I was coming from, and where I needed to be if I wanted to move my life forward and become my own person. Lee was one of the friends I needed the most, even when I was afraid to need people.

I looked up to Lee as a friend and a mentor, and I appreciated her advice. But I also appreciated her giving me a space to sit and unclench my jaw, relax my shoulders, unfurrow my brow. I expanded my circle of friends when I joined Bagels, I started being a little more open, I ventured out a little more. I started being more assertive and letting my opinions be known, even though I was still afraid of being “too aggressive,” but I wasn’t afraid of success and of reaching out for what I wanted and where I wanted to be. Life never turns out exactly the way you want it to, but I saw Lee and always thought to myself that I could change what I wanted to do and what I wanted to be, without worrying about what other people thought about me.

Lee had been a programmer by profession, but she was also a musician, a singer, and a dancer. She made jewelry when her programming specialty dried up and was replaced by a newer coding model, and turned it into her profession. She and her partner, Russ, went around the con circuit selling shirts and bumper stickers aimed at nerds, geeks, pagans, and anyone else who didn’t feel like they fit into the mainstream. I still wear jewelry I bought from her. I still have the Volde-Mart tote bag they gave me. Lee was a regular in the filk and contradance communities. She had friends everywhere, and it seemed like every person I met would say, “Oh, you know Lee? She’s great. I know her from….”

Lee had been diagnosed with and beaten breast cancer before. When she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer I figured she would beat this as well. Lee was strong-willed and independent. I suppose I always thought she could beat back any ailment or injury through sheer force of will. Lee passed away this year, on November 22. I don’t know that I can truly quantify the impact she had on my life, or that she had on other peoples’ lives. I do know that I am forever grateful for her friendship, and my life was better for having had her as a friend.

On Wanting to Serve

A little over 18 years ago, I enlisted in the US Navy. After 3 years of ROTC in high school, I was ready to go into the Armed Forces and serve my country. I loved ROTC. I loved everything about it, from the PT (well, maybe – I was kinda fat and it wasn’t the best part of ROTC), to the uniforms, formation, even the paperwork. (Wait, a future CPA loved paperwork? No way!) I even won the Daughters of the American Revolution medal for outstanding military service in ROTC. I was pumped for the military. My dad and I didn’t see eye to eye on it, though, and even having my recruiter come over and talk through it with him didn’t convince him. He wanted me to go to college, get a degree, and then enlist as an officer. I wanted to work my way up the old fashioned way.

So I signed up for the Delayed Entry Program and waited for my 18th birthday. In June of 2000, I flew to Great Lakes, IL to start my career. This was it – my chance to prove my worth, to be strong, independent, part of a team. I was going to learn a practical trade (Advanced Computers and Electronics), and be part of something bigger than myself. And thanks to three years of Army ROTC, I was going to start as an E-2 (my instructor recommended E-3, but the Navy was going to offer E-2).

One week (two weeks? a week and a half? I don’t recall as clearly now) in, at PT-0, I was tired and dehydrated and collapsed not quite at the finish line of a mile and a half run. I was devastated. How could I have let this happen? Two weeks later, I was developing an upper respiratory infection, but I ignored it because I wanted to tough it out and push through. I quickly developed a UTI after ignoring dehydration and trying to push through pain. I got a cold pack with cough drops to get me through the cough. Two weeks after that, the day my shipmates were getting their crisp Navy Whites, I was being handed paperwork on a medical discharge, and a bottle of antibiotics that looked like horse pills to treat the high fever that resulted from a sinus infection on top of a bronchial infection on top of a UTI that was threatening to turn into a kidney infection. A nice, well-meaning psychologist at the med center had suggested I needed to go home and get better. She asked me, “Are you sad? Are you feeling kind of depressed?” I said yes and she put “Major Depressive Disorder” in my chart, sent me to her superior officer where, in tears, I said, “Of course I’m depressed! How could this happen to me?” I went back to my barracks, gathered my things in the duffel bag they’d issued, and got a ride to SEPS (the separations facility), where I was sent home on a plane a few weeks later. It was devastating.

At some point in the process, I had given up on myself. Basic Training is more than physical training, it’s a mental training as well. That first incident was a crushing blow to my self esteem. I was so ready to be on my own, to prove myself, that I started to lose faith in myself and my goal. If you want to succeed in the military, you can’t do that. You’re part of a team, and Basic is there to break you down, to build you up as an individual and as a team. Your squad mates depend on you, and each other, to make things work. If you don’t believe in yourself, you can’t believe in your team.

Every now and then (usually on Veterans Day), I pull out my enlistment paperwork and wonder what I could have been, what I could have done. The kid in that paperwork was going to go places, do things, help people. That kid had dreams and goals, but they didn’t pan out. I’ve been beating myself up about that for 18 years – I considered myself a failure, and everything I did was tainted with that voice in the back of my mind, “But you couldn’t even make it through boot camp….” I could have tried harder, I could have done more, I could have fought my discharge and tried the Army or Air Force or gone back to the Navy. But I can’t change any of that now. I came home, I went to college, and now, a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees later, I’m a CPA with a family and my own home.

I’m not sure why Veterans Day hit me so hard this year – maybe the feelings of failure had built up to the point that I couldn’t hold them back any longer, or maybe it’s listening to my friends and family talk about their own military experiences. I pulled out my paperwork and started giving myself the same negative speech I give myself every time I look at those papers. “How could you do that? Why did you squander your future like that? What happened to you?” I realized quickly that I’ve been living in the “What if…?” of the past. I was feeling sorry for myself, when I could have been feeling proud of myself for dedicating three years of my life to ROTC and trying to serve my country in the Navy. I could have been thinking about the hard work and effort I put through to make something of myself afterwards. But all these years, the only words I could muster up when I thought about it were, “You’re a failure….”

ROTC taught me a lot of things – how to work as a team, how to support my squad mates, how to lead a group (even if I sucked at marching a platoon – I once marched my platoon right into a dumpster because my commands were off…). I learned the importance of hard work and dedication. The pride of wearing a uniform. It sure as shit didn’t teach me to feel sorry for myself.

So this year, I thought about what I wanted for myself. Whether I wanted to look back in sadness and feel sorry for myself for another 18 years, or if I wanted to feel proud of myself for what I’ve done with my life thus far. I decided that I wanted to stop looking at this paperwork and living in the past, to stop thinking of my efforts as a huge failure, to quit giving myself negative talks. I also decided that it was time to say goodbye to the paperwork. I kept my military training certificate, but I shredded the rest. I decided that I can’t move on, be proud of my friends and family who have served in the past, or who are currently serving, if I was going to keep hanging on to this paperwork and pulling it out to feel sorry for myself.

I also gave myself a different talk.

Dear 18-year-old self,

I can’t tell you that it would have been better, or that you could have tried harder and it would have worked out. I know you wanted this so bad. You tried – maybe it would have been different in the Army or the Air Force, or maybe it would have just been a different kind of bad experience. But you did what you thought was right for you, and that’s important. Your worth as a person is not contingent on whether or not you made it through boot camp. Your lack of service does not make you a lesser citizen or unworthy of respect. Your success is not tainted by what you think is a catastrophic failure.

Sincerely,
36-year-old self

Maybe putting the past through the shredder was unnecessary, or maybe I could have tried turning those papers into a positive memory. Maybe I could have kept the papers and tried to turn this into pride, but it seemed like an empty kind of pride when I compared it to the people who made it through Basic, and through their enlistment. Regardless, I had to say goodbye to the past and my negative self-talk. I could be proud of my efforts and be proud of what I’ve done thus far, or I could continue to mope about it. I chose the former.

Morning Conversations

[Scene – the kitchen, not-so-early morning]

Person A: You look sleepy this morning.

Person B: Nah. Okay maybe. I’m trying to reset my sleep schedule so I wake up earlier than 9PM. I mean 9AM. I mean… you get the idea.

Person A: Yeah, I’m trying to reset my sleep schedule so I wake up in 2020.

Person B: I don’t want to sleep that long! What if I wake up in 2020 and it turns out we’re not in the darkest timeline after all. What if it’s some sort of darker-est timeline?

Person A: What don’t you understand about darkest? That’s the final darkest outcome! It can’t get any worse!

Person B: Don’t say that out loud! You’ll curse us!

[awkward laughter ensues and players go on their way]

Metaphorically Speaking….

I have a small collection of $2 bills that I’ve acquired over the years and keep mainly for sentimental reasons, even though they’re legal tender. This weekend, I came home to find that the dog had pulled one off my desk and chewed it up. If ever there was a metaphor for this year, a chewed-up piece of little-used paper money is it.

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