I may be slowly going insane due to constant family functions. I live close to my mother's family, which is quite large. Not a month goes by when there is not some family get-together that everyone is invited to and expected to attend. And every function is the exact same thing: The women sit around the table drinking tea and eating cake, talking about decorating their homes or what course Sally will be taking in college this year. The men are in the garage with beers talking about hockey. Heaven forbid if you do not show up, unless you’re on death's door. How can I wiggle my way out of these many, many, many functions without feeling guilty?
Whew, three manys. That’s at least two manys too many.
Though I must say, your relatives do sound like a textbook tribe of stultifying stiffs, crustily calcifying into an advanced state of social rigor mortis.
Men and women segregated, men drinking beer, women having tea, cake and endless discussions of home decoration – is this Edwardian England? Are there antimacassars on the chairs? Finger bowls on the tables?
It’s my belief that some day medical science will discover that boredom at the type of levels you describe is actually bad for your physical health (if it hasn’t been already).
I have an unfortunate internal mechanism activated by boring social situations. My heart slows down to about one beat per minute (which can’t be good when you consider how clogged with gunk my arteries probably are) and I go into a glazed-over, semi-comatose, suspended-animation type state.
It’s tough for my wife, Pam, because suddenly she has to do all the work. She becomes a sort of one-woman band: smiling, sipping wine, offering people things, chatting – “So Mrs. McGillicuddy, how are your azaleas coming along?”– all while shooting me dirty, snap-out-of-it-Dave type looks and booting me furiously under the table.
I can’t help it. At these functions, I can feel my own functions shutting down. Like the HAL 9000 at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, my brain starts going, “Dave, I’m afraid. I'm afraid, Dave. I’m going, Dave, I can feel it,” slower and slower, in a deeper and deeper voice, until it starts to sing: “Daisy, Daisy, give me an answer, do. I’m half crazy … all for the love of you …”
So before anything like that starts happening to you on a regular basis, let’s roll up our sleeves and tackle your problem without further preamble.
Bottom line: You need a Bunbury.
For those who may have forgotten Oscar Wilde’s incomparably witty masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest, here is the character Algernon explaining “Bunbury” to his friend Jack: “I have invented an invaluable permanent invalid called Bunbury, in order that I may be able to go down into the country whenever I choose. … If it wasn't for Bunbury’s extraordinary bad health, for instance, I wouldn't be able to dine with you at Willis's tonight, for I have been really engaged to Aunt Augusta for more than a week.”
Now, I’m not saying you should be a naughty person like Algernon and break engagements you’ve already made. In fact, here in Damage Control country, we have an ironclad rule: Always honour the prior commitment.
But no one says you have to accept all these invitations in the first place. Bunbury them.
Your “Bunbury” doesn’t have to be an invalid or even a person – really it’s just a plausible excuse your relatives can live with when you turn down their invitations.
Work is a good Bunbury, I find, because it’s real: We all have to work. But it could be anything: pets, spring cleaning, anything you feel responsible for. A duty of some sort.
Even if it’s something you don’t “have” to do, it can be something you “ought” to do. And there are plenty of those to choose from, aren’t there?
As for feeling guilty – don’t. Life’s too short. And remember, it’s everyone’s individual duty to be interesting – a duty that your relatives have clearly shirked.
If you find you can’t Bunbury your way out of a particular social situation, there’s always the “surgical strike.” Get in and get out quickly: You’ll still get credit for the pop-by.
The key is to be firm and decisive in your leave-taking. Don’t worry if they act disappointed. That’s showbiz, baby. Leave ’em wanting more!
Of course, you run the risk of becoming even more fascinating to them, than ever, and getting invited to even more things. But maybe it’ll work the other way and some of the glamour you generate with your celebrity-type appearances will rub off on your neo-Edwardian, sexually segregated, tea-dunking, decor-describing, yawn-inducing relatives – and they’ll suddenly decide to become more interesting themselves.
After all, that’s the goal, isn’t it? Or, let’s say, one of life’s great challenges: to continually strive to become more and more, rather than less and less, interesting.
David Eddie is the author of Damage Control , the book.
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