My Name Is Haines: How to Escape Awkward Situations

I'm a master of extricating myself from awkward situations thanks to the years — nay, decades! — of practice. Over the years, I've stuck my foot in my mouth so many times, I can tell the difference between a Chuck Taylor and a chukka boot, an Adidas and an oxford.

Depending on my level and method of embarrassment, I can make my getaway using any number of strategies. I would see someone I "needed to talk to" and dart away. I would clutch at my stomach and mumble something about the shrimp being off. Or I would just point over the shoulder, shout "what's that?" and run.

There is an interesting story about Thomas Jefferson that may be the ultimate in sheepish skedaddling, and it's one I would love to see make a comeback.

One day, President Jefferson was out by himself, riding his horse near his Monticello home when he met up with another rider.

Jefferson and the other rider got to talking and the conversation soon turned to politics. The man, who had no idea who Jefferson was, railed against many of Jefferson's policies and laws.

Jefferson just smiled and nodded as they rode back to his stately home. When they reached Monticello, the President invited the man inside for some refreshments.

The man, realization beginning to dawn, asked his companion's name.

"Thomas Jefferson," said Thomas Jefferson. "And what's your name, friend?"

"My name is Haines," said the man, and then he galloped away as fast as his horse could run.

"My name is Haines" became a go-to phrase used when someone wanted to leave an embarrassing or awkward situation in a hurry. It became a highly popular catchphrase throughout the 19th century, although it died out in the 20th century.

But popular catchphrases and ninja-like escape skills only help you get out of awkward situations, they don't take away the painful memories. Those linger for years — nay decades! — afterward and will pop into my head, usually as I'm about to fall asleep at night.

"Good night," says my brain. "You've had a hard day, you need to sleep."

"Good night, brain," I say, drifting off.

"Hey, wait a minute," says my brain. "Do you remember that time you joked about a couple getting a divorce while you made a wedding speech?"

Or, "remember that time you made that wicked funny crack about a classmate, but she was standing right behind you?"

Or, "remember that time you called your girlfriend by your ex-girlfriend's name?"

"#&%*ing brain," I grumble, replaying that night's repressed memory over and over for the next three hours.

Despite the soul-writhing highlight reel that plays in my head over the years, I've only gotten slightly better at not saying something stupid. Instead I've become an expert at the sudden retreat. I mean, I wish I had gotten better at not saying stupid things at inappropriate times, but I was not blessed with the brain filter that stops people from saying the stupidest things imaginable.

Instead, the best I can hope for is a blustery, clumsy apology that only makes it worse.

I remember once meeting a woman whose daughter was in my own daughter's dance class. We got to talking, and I inquired about her family. The woman was thin, a bit pale, and I noticed she was wearing a fishing hat pulled down over her head that I realized (luckily, just in time) was meant to hide her hair loss from chemo treatments.

"What does your husband do?" I asked.

"We're divorced," she said, holding up her left hand to show it was ringless.

"Oh, sorry," I mumbled. I plowed ahead though, undeterred. "So what do you do?"

"Well, nothing right now. I'm looking for a job."

I thought I might be able to help her out here. "What did you used to do?" I asked, thinking I could help her find something similar.

"Oh, I didn't work. My husband was involved in a cult, and I only recently just escaped with my daughter. That's why we're divorced."

Holy crap, I was oh-for-two, and things were not looking good. I was floundering and sinking fast. I needed to grab onto something, anything, to stay afloat.

I picked something so safe, even I couldn't screw it up. I noticed she had been speaking with a distinctive accent, so I thought I would ask her about her home country.

"So, you're from Australia?" I asked.

"No, New Zealand." (The worst thing to say to a Kiwi is to ask them if they're from Australia.)

I later told my wife, "It was like I was having an out-of-body experience and I couldn't stop myself. I swear, I was thisclose to asking her why she was wearing a hat!"

Luckily, our daughters' dance class ended at that moment, and I was able to leave without making any bigger of a fool of myself.

"What's your name?" the woman asked me as I climbed into my car.

"My name is Thomas Jefferson," I said, and stomped on the gas.

I can't even get that right.

Photo credit: Portrait by Rembrandt Peale (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

My new humor novel, Mackinac Island Nation, is finished and available on Amazon. You can get the Kindle version here or the paperback version here.