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Published May 26 2012

Swift's final column: Thank you for coming along for the ride

I always said that when you wrote a column about writing your column, it was time to hang up your pen.

To me, it seemed like the ultimate cop-out: the point at which you became so self-indulgent and desperate for fresh ideas that you resort to the most extreme brand of navel-gazing.

Now, it must be time to hang up my pen.

You see, this week’s column is about writing my column – or, more accurately, no longer writing my column.

I finished up my final days at The Forum last week to take a new position as social media marketing manager at Kilbourne Group in Fargo. It’s a chance to work better hours, make more money and buy dill pickle-flavored potato chips at the local supermarket without worrying someone will judge me.

As part of that move, I plan to discontinue my column.

The decision has been all mine, yet there is a lump in my throat as I type this.

Yes, I must confess to feeling some relief from saying farewell to a 22-year obligation. In my earliest years, older editors used to cluck their tongues and say: “Just wait till you run out of ideas. It will happen before you know it.”

I thought they were crazy.

My life was made for columns! I was single and living in Dickinson, N.D., and had terrible self-esteem and chunky thighs! My life was a real-life Cathy cartoon! How would I ever run out of ideas?

But since 1990, I have written a humor column almost every week.

If you can trust the reporter math, that’s 1,144 columns. I probably missed a couple of dozen of those weeks due to vacation, sickness or marsupial attack.

But even by conservative counts, that’s more than 1,100 columns. In that time, I had a gall bladder removed, moved five times, worked 4½ jobs, got engaged, bought my first grownup car, got married, was treated for depression, became an obnoxious dog mother, was trapped at home for four days in an ice storm, started renting a lake cabin, broke my arm, became a godmother, had major surgery, got sober, sold my first grownup car to a 15-year-old boy, lost weight and gained enough of it back to be depressed all over again.

Many of those experiences became column topics. Some of the most painful and personal ones did not. I always felt my No. 1 mission was to make readers smile, not to use my column for personal therapy.

As Forum Editor Matthew Von Pinnon once reminded me, a column is like a shadow. The demands of writing one follow you everywhere. Even when you don’t think you’re thinking about it, deep in the recesses of your brain – lurking somewhere between what the state capital of Louisiana is and what your seventh-grade locker combination was – there it is, whispering gently: “Column. Column. Must. Write. Column!”

Parents who are columnists seem to have it so easy, what with their wacky kids getting their heads stuck in tubas and asking overweight strangers when their babies were due.

But as a married woman without kids, it could be difficult to come up with material. Sure, I have two dogs, an ancient cat, an uncommonly entertaining husband and enough neuroses to fill several Woody Allen films.

Even so, I have sometimes prayed desperately that something interesting would happen to me just so I had column fodder.

The downside to tripping over that wire fence while walking my dogs in 2006? I broke my arm. The upside: I was able to write a hilarious column that week – albeit a bit more slowly than when I had two fully functioning wings and wasn’t under the influence of hydrocodone.

But there’s a bitter side to my early retirement as well. Column-writing can be creative, inspiring and just plain fun. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have been able to do it for a couple of decades.

There’s nothing quite like that shiver of joy I feel when a reader takes the time to send me a kind note – or approaches me in the pharmacy where I am buying toenail fungus cream – to let me know that I made them laugh.

“I feel like you grew up in my family,” they might say.

I can’t imagine a higher compliment.

I did not grow up in a privileged environment. The only newspaper my parents subscribed to was our hometown weekly. I always loved to write, but couldn’t imagine working as a professional writer until I took my first “intro to media writing” class in college.

All I knew was that I took after my dad – a witty farmer/rancher who used to write poetry on the side. I knew that I adored Erma Bombeck, the late, great humor columnist who taught me to find the funny side of everyday life. And I knew I wasn’t good at much else besides writing, drawing, baking and watching old movies.

I bonded with readers not because I am extraordinary but because I am ordinary.

I am imperfect, flustered, flawed – an Every-Tam, if you will. Few people are as irritating as perfectionists, and I have never claimed to be one. When we admit our own flaws and vulnerabilities, we make it OK for others to reveal their human foibles, too.

I like to joke that, from the age of 2, I gazed from my crib at my incredibly obedient oldest sister, “Verbena” (whose real name is Sandy), my incredibly brave second-oldest sister, “Mabel” (aka Terri) and my incredibly brilliant third-oldest sister, “Bertha” (Connie), and thought: “Tough crowd. Guess I’d better be funny.”

And ever since then, I’ve been the first one to roll out of the tiny clown car.

Thank you, Forum readers, for coming along for the ride.

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Readers can reach Tammy Swift at tswiftsletten@gmail.com.