April 1999
s m u g
by Todd Levin


Portrait of the Artist as a Young No-Talent

(This is part one of a very special two-part ac/dc...)

The last time I bothered to visit my parents, I was politely instructed to "sort through any of the things that are still in storage from several years ago" and "please decide what should finally be thrown out" or it would be "gathered into a huge, stinking pile and set on fire, just like all of your fancy books filled with all varieties of salacious notions and college-boy double-talk." (My parents, like many people of their generation, are hippies-turned-yuppies-turned-backwoods-fundamentalists.) The task of rummaging through these trifles of my youth proved somewhat difficult, actually. Time has a way of imbuing even the most incidental objects with a treasured sentimentality. How can you throw away an old pair of Boston Celtics sweatsocks that you distinctly remember masturbating into when you were discovering your own sexuality? How can you possibly dispose of that retro-cool Atari 2600 console that you remember masturbating into as well?

Things took a sickeningly sweet turn when I had to make a decision about throwing out ancient correspondences and personal writing dating all the way back to 1982 (I was only 11 years old then). Scores of love letters on preppy stationary, folded a million times over to facilitate more clandestine classroom note-passing. Crushes reciprocated and recorded. Cute little drawings of my friends and family with cartoonish daggers poking into their genitals or little flames shooting out of their eyeballs as a funny half-man, half-goat floats in the blackened sky above them. Tokens of childhood that seemed criminal to discard. Then I found some poetry I wrote as an early teenager and immediately decided to throw everything away (I did keep one of the drawings to show my therapist, though).

Wow. I actually wrote this and printed it in a "literary" zine I published for a Jewish youth group while I was in high school. I remember the youth group -- it was a carbon copy of thousands of other such organizations that promoted intra-faith premarital sex disguised cleverly behind a series of elaborately staged weekend "religious conclaves" -- and I suppose I remember this zine, though only marginally well. But I somehow managed to completely repress any knowledge of this "poem." And I was hoping I could keep it that way.

I must confess, though, this little (eerily untitled) scrap of rhyming verse probably has more to say about the state of adolescence than it has to say about me (the author would so desperately like you to believe this statement). Teenagers, because of their youth, are able to make their feelings completely accessible, often left right on the surface for public examination. You can record your feelings, to share or pretend to hide from others. Your daily existence maintains a pendulous balance between hysterical farce and flamboyantly acted tragedy. It's nice; for all the pain you think you're feeling, the ready release of it is really liberating. Best of all, you get to use words like "soul" and "burning sand" and "bleak" without attracting ridicule or theater majors. Cool.

Fortunately, as you grow older you learn how to properly repress your existential crises until you're just too darn stuffed with the sad little thoughts that you swallowed to avert conflict. Then you start wearing greasy brown paper bags as hats and parking yourself in front of Walgreens, yelling about how your spit tastes like it's been poisoned by the Lebanese. That's what growing up is all about.

There are learned behaviors and appropriate reactions that come slowly and instinctually as you mature from adolescent to prematurely balding man. No one coaches you on refining tools for handling certain emotional circumstances; you simply develop reflexes on your own, quite naturally. As a quick primer, here are some examples of situations and how they might be handled differently from adolescence to adulthood



I'm a Teenager

I'm an Adult

Need to tell that special someone how you feel about him/her?

mix tape

whisky sour

Tough day at work/school?

go home, call everyone you know and just leave messages that you've called (hang up if they're home). then retreat to your bedroom with the lights out and music on. (recommended: for girls -- Hole's "Live Through This" / for boys -- Metallica's "And Justice for All" / for sissyboys -- Hole's "Live Through This"). Whenever someone calls you back, yell at your mom or dad and tell them you don't want to talk to anyone.

3 whisky sours

Feel alienated? No friends? Social life got you down?

Register "harlequin.org" and start an online journal immediately!


Sebadoh is in town. What do you wear?

How about a brand-new oversized Dinosaur Jr. T-shirt (cause you were into that guy way before anyone), thrift store jeans, wallet w/ chain and puma clydes. You look cool.

Same outfit, older shirt (cause you were into Dinosaur Jr. way before anyone), and earplugs. You look like a mentally retarded adult, all dressed up like an oversized child.

Uh oh? That special someone not what you expected? Need to end this relationship before it kills you?

Too busy to write a letter or send a long email? Have a friend call him/her and politely relay the message that it's over between you. Nice, clean break and you don't have to answer all those difficult questions.

Give it six more months or wait until the lease you share is up (whichever takes longer). If you're over 35 years old, consider marriage.


I think it was only my youth (and my poor education) that allowed me to write (and feel OK to print) this poem, and that's fine. Maybe I did feel like I was "just a mouse" when I wrote those lines. Maybe I hadn't yet developed the emotional shades of gray which would have informed me that a poem needs a rhythm but does not necessarily require a rhyme scheme (especially an A-B-A-B scheme -- yikes!). Maybe I had an overdeveloped sense of self that lacked the perspective of distance and experience to inform me that my exercise in self-expression was a bit melodramatic. And maybe I got to french kiss about 20 reformed Jewish teenage girls who read that poem and determined I was a frail creature in great need of emotional support and physical affection. But isn't that enough?

(stay tuned for part two, in which the author deconstructs the great untitled verse of his youth...)




back to the junk drawer

and such
and such

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