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  • Illustrations by Mr Joe McKendry

My children have a shelf full of books they love to look at every night during those tender moments just before bedtime, books that are essentially devoted to introducing them to the wonderful world of things that can kill you, such as great white sharks, F-16 fighter jets, lava-spurting volcanoes and medieval weaponry.

It's sort of the same with family reunions: I love to sit down with an album of family pictures - who doesn't? But in the flesh, those compulsory get-togethers with relatives can prove deadlier than the bite of the Paraguayan kissing bug.

I recently had the experience of attending an enormous family reunion that had been convened to celebrate the 100th birthday of our tribal patriarch, a retired career intelligence official. If you think Game of Thrones is full of pageantry, you should have seen our version of the Lannisters and the Targaryens as we filed into the lakeside encampment near Cape Cod that is our Westeros. Drab early-model hybrid sedans silently glided through an epic July downpour. Hundreds of cousins filled the folding chairs under the shuddering canopy of our capacious rent-a-tent.

So much rain was falling that before lunch an enormous ankle-deep puddle of black mud formed at the edge of the tent, then oozed straight toward the honoree and his table. Meanwhile, a horrifying thing happened. I started to enjoy myself. Since my family's last reunion, 20 years had passed. The last time the clan gathered I had been an odiously mannered college punk who believed that spending more than three continuous hours in the presence of an old person would irreparably damage his quotient of cool. I wore sunglasses the entire time and made sure to say nothing remotely sincere.

I had come to this reunion with a similar attitude, but now I discovered one of the great mysteries of human existence. The things we loathe as children implant themselves in our brain, gestate for a number of decades, and then emerge from dormancy in the form of an ardent desire to rake leaves by hand, go sailing in November and consume vast quantities of coarse-grained German mustard. And of course, what is the best way to enjoy these things? To inflict them on our own children.

Mine are too young to realise that things such as old people, family and authority wreck your cool, and I watched them mingling with their cousins, plainly enthralled by the idea that they shared a connection with everyone around them. More than anything they seemed to love the idea of being related to the people at the reunion they didn't know. I began to wish the rain wasn't so fierce, that there would be time to get to know everyone, but it was and there wouldn't be, and soon it was time to start looking ahead another 20 years.

For those whose experiences at a family reunion aren't so pleasant, here are some coping mechanisms, strategies of evasion and escape routes to get you through.