Matt Keenan is off this week. In his absence we publish this column, which originally appeared in The Star in 2010.
In the ’70s, politicians coined the term “misery index” to describe the combination of inflation with unemployment.
Teenagers have their own misery index, but it has nothing to do with the Consumer Price Index. Instead, it has everything to do with parents who ruin their lives — or at least a couple minutes of it, which in their world is an eternity.
These days it seems that’s my specialty — bringing parental reality to their domain.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
So here is my top 10 teenage misery index:
10. Raking leaves. Anything in the sun that doesn’t involve a swimming pool is not a teenage favorite. But raking leaves takes despair to a new level. It is, admittedly, an entirely useless undertaking, since leaves find their own resting place without human intervention. But it’s fun to watch their two hours of work disappear with the first big wind gust.
9. Parental expressions. Kids have trouble with parents who talk in complete sentences and don’t use abbreviations. So use old-fogey language when they want something. That makes their veins bulge.
Examples: Life isn’t fair; deal with it. You’re heading down the wrong path. When I was your age… Let’s see how your grades come out. Your wallet is wherever you left it. Let’s discuss this in a couple months after parent-teacher conferences. Because I said so.
You can judge where they fall on the index by their reply.
Examples: You’re so negative. I hate my life. I can’t wait for college. You’re the meanest dad I know.
8. Radio monopoly. Dictating a playlist they detest, especially oldies, and then playing it for hours on road trips to destinations with badcell phone coverage. This is a fun exercise when they’ve lost their iPod, which of course they think is your fault. Sing the song and shake to it. Motown songs are my specialty, especially at a stoplight.
When they duck below the window, you’ve just made the top 10 misery index. You can escalate the pain even higher by channeling your inner Clark Griswold and starting conversations with, “This might be a good time to talk about how babies are made” — provided the car doors are securely locked.
7. Sunday church. I suppose somewhere on this planet there is a 17-year-old boy who looks forward to Mass, says prayers and has a personal relationship with the big man. His parents should call the Vatican and put him on the list for pope-in-waiting. In our house, Sunday Mass for my boys is a doom and gloom trifecta — sharing seating with parents, sitting still and missing hundreds of texts. If they break down and pray, it’s for a water break or tornado warning.
6. Pet accidents. Remember that blood oath they made when you got them that dog? Time to remind them of it.
5. Wearing the Boy Scout uniform in public after the age of 16. In the early years, kids love the Scout uniform. Scarves, pins, badges. Young Scouts are a bundle of joy and every day is a great day. They want to do a good turn and save humanity. Then something happens — fumes, perfume and car fumes — and they turn miserable. There is one exception to this rule: when they happily wear the uniform for the last time, typically at age 17, at their Eagle Court of Honor.
4. Dance recitals. Forty-five dance routines and number 42 is the one with the kid sister.
3. Haircuts. Especially with the parent standing over the barber, giving instructions. “Take some more off there and there and there.”
2. “So embarrassing.” A shopworn phrase with almost no meaning, since they claim everything falls in this category — being seen in the same ZIP code with parents, for instance, or breathing, existing. But taking them shopping for clothes at one of the “uncool” stores — Dillard’s, Macy’s or Sears, say — earns a spot on the misery index.
1. Piano recitals for their kid sister. To be sure, these do go on forever, and tend to combine long periods of complete silence while sitting on folding chairs that have the comfort level of a linoleum floor. Still, for boys, while they wait for their kid sister’s performance, they must clap for the 9-year-old boy who just botched “Chopsticks” because he’s missed every lesson this year. That, plus the Tune Shop catacombs are a mile below the earth’s crust where no cellphone signal has ever been registered. In my experience, it’s a perfect storm of despair that earns a top rating.