Last, This, Next

As I was folding a week’s subset of my embarrassingly large collection of printed t-shirts, I reflected momentarily on the history of my pixelated Minnesota t-shirt. I bought that t-shirt last summer and wore it each time I went to the Minnesota State Fair last year, as my symbol of “Minnesota pride”.

Then I started thinking about sharing this story, and about referring to the Minnesota State Fair that took place in 2013 as the “last” Minnesota State Fair, and how the one that will take place “this” year, in 2014, is “this” State Fair, and so on.

Frequently conversations between SLP and me have resulted in confusion based on the different possible interpretations of “last”, “this” and “next” when referring to days, weeks, months, years or events. I tend to use “this” when I’m referring to any unit of time that occurs within the same larger unit of time, whether before or after the current one, although I may be likely to omit “this”.

For example, today is Thursday. The Super Bowl (or, if you prefer, the Suberb Owl) is happening in 3 days. It’s happening “this Sunday”. But what if today was (or is it “were”? I never get that right, either) already “Superb Owl Sunday” and I was (“were”?) talking about the 5K race I’m running in 7 days later? “This” Saturday seems a bit far off in that case. But “next” Saturday doesn’t feel right to me either. Or does it? Is it better for “next” Saturday to refer to a day that’s 6 days away, or 13?

As for my confusion with SLP, the fact that she lived her life on the September-to-June academic calendar for much longer than I did only exacerbated the situation. I’ve always been a stickler (to the point of ridiculousness) for precision in dates. The first day out of school isn’t the beginning of summer; the solstice is. The first day back in school isn’t the beginning of fall; the equinox is. And the first day back in school in late August or early September most definitely is not the beginning of the new year. (Although yes, Rosh Hashanah usually does occur in September so depending on the calendar you use, there’s an argument to be made.)

Ironically, it was only after SLP stopped organizing her life around the academic year that I embraced calling any of the days in early-to-mid June when our kids are out of school (but which are still technically in spring) “summer”, but I will never give up the idea that “this year” refers to the 4-digit number starting with a “2” that comes at the end of the current date. “This year,” to me, means January 1 to December 31. Period.

But what do I mean when I say “this winter”? Sure, winter technically only starts about 10 days before the new year, so it’s almost entirely in 2014. But let’s be honest. In Minnesota, “winter” usually starts in early December, or sometimes as early as October. By my logic, “winter” in Minnesota begins on whatever day snow falls and doesn’t melt away. We had a few light snows in November, but “this winter” began on December 2, 2013.

My point is: language is fuzzy. Assigning vague labels like “last”, “this” and “next” to our days and events relies on a great deal of tacit agreement between ourselves over meaning. This particular quirk of our language has been causing me trouble since I was a kid. Back then I had a lot of time, sitting around bored in school (which I didn’t even realize was the case until much later in life), to ponder and obsess over and get annoyed by things like this. I was trying to create in my mind a world of precision and clarity that didn’t, and couldn’t, exist. Our minds don’t work that way, the world doesn’t work that way, and language, a product of our minds used to help us understand and communicate with each other about the world, necessarily can’t work that way.

I didn’t understand that then, and I only barely do now. Each of us carries around an entire universe in our mind. It’s built on a foundation laid by our genes and constructed around our experiences — and our interpretations of those experiences. Our language can only achieve an approximation of a fraction of that universe, and we have to rely on the assumption that our own version of the language we use is a close enough approximation of the same things in our own mental universe as the language, and the mental universe it represents, of the others around us.

It’s a wonder we can communicate at all.

A spammer’s story…

Most of the spam aimed at my inbox gets stopped long before it reaches my computer, thanks to my ISP’s spam filter. And what does get to me generally is shunted straight into a “Junk Mail” folder. But today a new spam message managed to confound all of the road blocks in its way, and arrived within my field of vision. Just out of curiosity, I clicked on it.

Of course, it’s trying to sell pills… Viagra, Cialis, Ambien, Valium, Xanax, etc. As is the trend these days, the actual spam portion of the message is contained within a wavy, tilted image. But what I found interesting was the lengthy, nonsensical prose that followed. Clearly this was the key to escaping detection and elimination en route to my computer, but it’s so bizarre as to be amusing, much like the “spam sender pseudonyms” that used to work back in 2004. And since I know you’re dying to read it yourself, here it is…

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Unfortunately the story just abruptly ends there. I need closure!!!

The Poster

A Short Story

A few weeks ago I quit, threw in the towel, took this job and shoved it. I gave up my long-term day job and embarked on an adventurous new career in… art appraisal.

OK, sure, I know little about art, and absolutely nothing about its value, but these days ignorance is a virtue. So it was with the swagger of clueless self-assuredness that I hung out my shingle, so to speak:


Business was slow for a week or two. OK, it was beyond slow. But at least I was my own boss, and now I had no one but myself to blame for my boredom and frustration.

And then, the package arrived.

Yes, the package. It was a cardboard poster tube, with a 21216 postmark. My ZIP code. Someone saw fit to pay the US Postal Service $3.85 to take two days to deliver a package to me that they themselves could have walked over here with in 20 minutes. I knew I was dealing with a shrewd character.

Not to mention the fact that they’d apparently rolled up a piece of artwork to ship in a poster tube.

I opened the end of the tube with the mild, lazy curiosity of a person who’s been counting the ceiling tiles for so long that nothing short of the aurora borealis localized entirely within the room would arouse true interest. (At least I could always rely on an oblique Simpsons reference to brighten the day.)

With my expectations already sufficiently lowered, I took little care in shaking the contents out of the tube, which slid quickly onto the floor, denting in one rolled-up edge, flopping down on the linoleum, and rolling a few feet before unraveling like a clock spring.

I gazed blankly at the object on the floor. It was, not surprisingly, a poster. It met all of the criteria that, in my mind, coalesce into the concept, “poster.” About two feet by three feet, glossy white paper, blank on one side, printed on the other. Yup, a poster.

Static cling momentarily bonded a letter to its surface. I picked it up and began reading:

Dear Sir:

Enclosed please find an artwork which I would like to have appraised. You may reach me at:

Mary Landers
1328 Marsh St.
Baltimore, MD 21216

Thank you.

Mary Landers

The name was perfect. Assuming she was a local, her parents either had a cruel sense of humor or were as clueless as she was. I wondered if she had a southern belle cousin named Mrs. Ippi. Those were the kinds of thoughts that ran threw my head these days. Why did I ever quit that day job?

Here it was, my first serious (if you could really call it that) appraisal. Piece of cake! I thought to myself.


Having given the poster my 2-second evaluation, I decided to take a closer look merely to pass the time.

It was a poster, and a truly wretched one at that. It appeared to be a collage of photographs of military tombstones from America’s various wars: the French-and-Indian War, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War. Now I was about as much of an expert on military history as I was on art. Fortunately for me, there is a longstanding tradition of noting the war in which soldiers have died upon their tombstones.

Then there was a tombstone with a death date of 2026, which appeared to have been colored over with a green highlighter. Pure rubbish! I thought to myself. In addition to the highlighter, I noticed someone had scrawled the name “Ralph” with a Sharpie in the lower left corner of the poster, and in the lower right corner, there was a large white sticker with a UPC bar code, and the words “PRINTS PLUS — $6.99.”

Perfect, I thought to myself. But I wouldn’t give you a nickel for it.

I decided to have a little fun at Ms. Landers’ expense, since I could always head down to Prints Plus and pick her up another copy of this godawful thing; I couldn’t imagine a high demand on this particular poster.

It occurred to me that my perspective on the poster was incorrect, what with it lying on the floor as it was. So I must mount it on the wall for proper viewing. But with what? I surveyed the few scattered items I had bothered to unpack from the moving boxes in the four weeks I had been renting the office. Duct tape, thumbtacks, a box of Chiclets.

Why not try them all? I thought.

First, the duct tape. Not overly concerned that I would need it to secure plastic sheeting to seal off the door to my office anytime soon, I made no miserly effort to conserve the gray sticky stuff, and applied it liberally to the poster. I rolled up pieces and stuck them on the back. I tore off long strips and pressed them lengthwise against the edges of the glossy paper. I even cut out small pieces and selectively covered bits of the text on the tombstones in the photos, for added amusement.

Then the thumb tacks. One in each corner would probably suffice to keep the poster hanging securely, but why stop there? I turned the poster into a veritable thumbtack dartboard. And to top it all off, I sloppily chewed a mouthful of Chiclets and tested their adhesive properties.

Thoroughly convinced I had created a masterpiece to strike fear into one Ms. Mary Landers of 1328 Marsh St., I ripped the poster from the wall (leaving a few forlorned corners gripping the sheetrock in confusion), rolled it carelessly, snapped a wide rubber band around its center, jammed it back into the tube, and set out into the brisk morning air for a walk down to Marsh St. to hand deliver both the poster and my crude appraisal.

Knock knock.

“Who’s there?”

“It’s Lionel Smith with your art appraisal.”

The door slowly opened, and a short, kindly woman appeared. “Hello, Mr. Smith. I’m Mary Landers. Thank you for looking at the piece.”

The “piece?” I thought. That’s one word for it. But I’d add a couple more at the end.

Ms. Landers escorted me into the living room and offered me a cup of tea. How quaint.

“No, thank you.”

“Well, then, may I ask you for your assessment of the work?”

The “work!” It just keeps getting better.

“I’m sorry, Ms. Landers,” I said with mock remorse as I pried the sticky contents out of the tube, “but the news is not good.”

At the sight of the mangled poster, Mary Landers’ heart visibly sank in her chest. A paleness came over her face, and she looked about to faint.

“Oh… my…” she grasped for words. “What have you done? You do realize this is a one-of-a-kind work by my brother, the famous lithograph artist Ralph Landers!”

I gazed blankly at the woman standing in front of me.

“The Ralph Landers!” she exclaimed, throwing a copy of the New Yorker in my direction. I picked up the magazine and flipped to a bookmarked page. There I saw a lengthy, glowing review of the MOMA exhibit of the famed lithograph works of Ralph Landers.

Abruptly a tall man entered the room. He gasped when he saw the decimated artwork. “You know nothing of my work!” he exclaimed. The image of Marshall McLuhan passed briefly through my head. “Get out!”

And with that I was on my ass on the sidewalk.

A few more thumb-twiddling, ceiling-tile-counting weeks passed. I decided that perhaps I would be more successful as an art appraiser if I actually learned something about art, so I headed to D.C. and the National Gallery. I was greeted at the entrance by giant, 40-foot-tall banners bearing a single, larger-than-life word:



I entered the museum, and noticed a long queue assembling to enter the Landers exhibit. My natural curiosity got the best of me, and I joined the line. Sure enough, when I entered the exhibit hall, I discovered none other than the works of famed lithographer Ralph Landers.

One work, in particular, seemed to garner an inordinate amount of attention. I approached the huddled mass and squirmed my way to the front. There, behind a velvet rope, hung the very poster I myself had profaned with my duct tape, thumbtacks, Chiclets, and saliva.



“A profound statement on the price of war, the commodification of art, and modern society’s abandonment of things of value.”

The man standing next to me asked, “What do you think?”

I gazed blankly at the object hanging on the wall. I hoped desperately to exude an air of deep contemplation.


After the crowd dispersed, I pulled a Sharpie out of my pocket. (Yes, I carry a Sharpie at all times. Don’t you?) I leaned gingerly over the velvet rope, pulled the cap from the pen, and scrawled “Lionel” across a strip of duct tape.