I'm not good at letting go; I have the word of one mental health professional on this, and half a dozen gifted amateurs. Nevertheless, I'm about to let go of Madison to take a new job in Milwaukee. By the time you read this note I'll be gone.
I've been working up to this letting go for six weeks, and in that time I've figured out why farewell notes, valedictory speeches and the like always lean decidedly toward the positive. It's not that you forget the disappointments, the arguments and the things that just never were right. You don't forget them entirely -- but you certainly don't have to mourn them. It's the good things you mourn. That's what you begin to miss even before you leave; that's what you think about the most.
I've written this column once every three weeks for 4 ½ years, but one thing I never wrote about was Isthmus. Writing about it would have felt too "inside," too smug. Right at this moment, though, its feels essential.
When I'd meet people for the first time and they'd find out where I worked, the second thing they'd ask me--right after "Are you Ursula?"-- was: "What's it like to work at Isthmus?" I'd usually answer, "It's like working anyplace else, I guess." And most of the time it was. Some days were pleasant, and some days were boring, and some days you'd pause a moment to reflect that if you had a handgun in your desk a lot of people would be dead.
But once in a while it was different. Once in a while it would seem like a movie...a movie about a spunky, successful alternative weekly. A crisis would be averted coolly, heroically. After meeting an impossible deadline, somebody would sit back, light up a cigarette, inhale, exhale, smile and say, "That one was a bitch." Terrific one-liners would sail across the room like Frisbees, and people would laugh at their own and each other's, joyously, generously.
Generosity has been on my mind a lot as I think these valedictory thoughts. For six years, the people I worked with gave me all sorts of things: mundane, important, irreplaceable. They gave me encouragement, aspirin, gin-and-tonics, home-baked bread, good advice, birthday cakes, books, flowers, cartoons, their dentist's phone number, a ride to the mechanic when my car died, a sofa to sleep on when I couldn't face going home, a smile or a compliment or a hug when I didn't think there were any to be had in the whole world.
I'll miss them. I'll miss complaining with them. I'll miss bullshitting about Philip Roth and John Updike and Jane Austen and the Village Voice. I'll miss being able to use the word "bullshitting" in my copy. I'll miss good writers telling me I made their copy sound better. I'll miss the communal carpentering of headlines, the loneliness of writing temporarily replaced by the exhilaration of shared creativity.
Perversely, in these last weeks, rather than lightening my load for the move, I feel as though I've actually picked up some emotional baggage. I never noticed until the other night, for instance, just how magnificently stagy the moon looks rising over the Capitol: another thing to miss. There are people I've met in the last month that I'll miss getting to know better. There are people I've known for six years that I'll miss getting to know better.
And I'll miss the column, of course. I loved writing it--or, as the tortured, perpetually blocked kind of writer (my kind of writer) more accurately puts it, I loved it when it was done. But even under that strange self-inflicted torture, I don't think I ever quite forgot what a rare privilege it was, what a luxury, simply to have a forum. Occasionally people would say they'd clipped a column out and mailed it to a friend, or stuck it to their refrigerator door with magnets. That never stopped making me feel wonderful.
Anyway, anyway.... Milwaukee, as I keep reassuring people and they keep reassuring me, is only 75 miles away. And people who are bad at letting go are good at keeping in touch. I'll keep in touch.