Working life: What's your problem?

INDISPENSABLE ADVICE FROM REAL LIFE'S AGONY AUNT AND UNCLE

FAMILY CONVENTION

My mum has recently been reading a lot of self-help books and articles, and the main theme of all of them is to do what you want and not live your life for other people. She is very keen on this (she says she's been a doormat long enough, etc, etc) and has several times warned me not to waste my life in the same way. She has also been encouraging me not to feel obliged to do things I would normally have done, so I've missed a number of dreary family gatherings, with her support. Now, however, my brother's graduation is coming up, and mum is organising a celebration afterwards, at my parents' home. I told her I wasn't going - it will be very boring, I can't afford the journey and overnight stay and there is quite a big age gap between my brother and me, so although we are on very good terms it's not as if I will enjoy his party very much. She hit the roof, went ballistic, told me I was being selfish and now is refusing to talk to me unless I go along. What's happening?

Sarah, Durham

He says: How very brave of your mother, presumably at quite an advanced age, to have thrown off the shackles of convention! However, it is difficult to transform one's outlook overnight or even over months or years. Under the pressure of your brother's graduation, an important event for her, she is regressing to her former downtrodden state. Gently but firmly point out that you are following her own advice to you; she will come round in time (and indeed might tell your brother to organise his own party). But a word of warning: don't be too hasty to cut all family ties, however dreary you may find your older relatives at this point in your life. Remember, families are a support network that you may need one day.

She says: It's virtually impossible for two people at once to try to do their own thing without some fireworks. When people say "Do as you want, live for yourself" what they tend to mean is "Do as you want, live for yourself, as long as it doesn't encroach on what I want you to do or spoil my fun". Your mum is quite happy to support you in cocking a snook at a few elderly aunts or whatever - it underlines her own new role as free spirit. But, as you see, avoid any party she throws herself at your peril. It sounds as though you haven't seen much of your family recently: this might be a golden opportunity to get the lot of them out of the way at one go. If you really can't face it you could try enlisting your brother and ask him specifically to tell your mother he doesn't mind if you don't come.

FOOD FIGHTERS

I want to take exception to an unkind comment you made in your column last week. You said that faddy eaters, when staying with other people, should take their own sandwiches or stay home. I am a strict vegetarian and allergic to dairy products and none of my friends seem to have the slightest problem in feeding me. Also it makes an opportunity for them to experience a different way of eating as well. Surely if you ask people to stay it is your responsibility to make them feel comfortable.

David, Southampton

He says: I quite agree. The guest/host relationship is one of the most deeply entrenched of all human social links. It should be one of give and take, with all on their best behaviour and prepared to work hard to make the occasion a success, and if all it takes is for everyone to drink soya milk for a weekend, then so be it.

She says: My objection is not to the vegetarians of this world but to those who are faddy. My heart went out last week to our correspondent who, if you remember, had to feed a vegetarian who didn't actually like vegetables. Faced with attempting to feed a houseful of guests on the whim of the one who eats only beetroot, organic alfalfa and honey, any hostess would be justified in throwing in the towel.

HELLO, STRANGER

One of my best friends has recently got engaged, and is planning a wedding for this spring. The trouble is that she had known her fiance for only a matter of days before taking this big step with him. I don't have any particular objections to this man - well, neither of us know him very well. For all I know he is very nice and will make the perfect husband but then again he could be an axe murderer. I am very worried that she is rushing into things too fast and wonder if I should say anything.

Anna, Deptford

He says: Draw on your knowledge of your friend. Is she usually impulsive and do her impulses usually prove correct, or is her life a series of predictable disasters in one field or another? If she has already made a success of life on the edge she may be on the verge of pulling off another triumph. If not, it would probably be kindest in the long run to point out her track record and advise caution. If you take the latter route, however, be warned: she will not thank you for pointing out her repeated pattern of foolish behaviour. Good advice is not always welcome!

She says: Luckily covert axe murderers are pretty thin on the ground, and, in any case, everyone's marrying on impulse these days: look at that couple the other day who hadn't even met each other but got married because some radio station offered it as a prize in a competition. Whenever this kind of situation hits the headlines for some reason, newspapers and magazines wheel out couples who have supposedly experienced love at first sight and interview them. Normally they find one set who have been blissfully married for 30 years and have four lovely grandchildren and one set who hate each other like poison and were divorced the week after the wedding, so it's impossible to call. I'd keep quiet for now, but be ready to help pick up the pieces afterwards if need be.

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