End of the Line

Should You?

Thoughts on a slippery principle


There’s a hole in the Golden Rule. What if others don’t want you to do unto them as you would have them do unto you? What if what you would have others do unto you is to enjoy a big sloppy kiss, and what others would have you do unto them is to leave them alone? A more reliable rule is this one from a Kinky Friedman novel: Never try to climb a fence that’s leaning toward you, and never try to kiss a woman who is leaning away.

In airplanes, I generally lean away from conversation. But not long ago I was sitting next to a man who kept wanting to tell me about all the different therapies he was going through for his ankles.

I don’t think he said angst, or anger. I think he said ankles. I know he said he felt he was becoming “part Buddhist.” Buddh-ish, I guess. And he didn’t pronounce the oo sound in Buddhist the way people always used to, as in food. He pronounced it the way I notice people are doing lately: as in good.

Then he told me something else: that when therapists today want you to do something, they steer as far as possible away from telling you to do it. They will say, “I invite you to” roll over, or whatever. That is all part of the general truth, he said, that “no one should ever say should.”

And it hit me. I am part shouldist.

Maybe I shouldn’t be, but I am.

I hardly ever tell others what they should or shouldn’t do. After all, advice, as a rule, boils down to “If I were you, I’d listen to me.”

But should works for me in various ways. Say you and your wife are on a long road trip and you breakfast at a Waffle House.

None too shabby, flavorwise. On the jukebox, “Waffle Doo-Wop.” A three-hundred-pound customer stands up abruptly and announces to her four-hundred-pound son (looks like) and, incidentally, the room: “I have seldom ever missed breakfast. It is the most important meal of the day!” And the server drops half a dozen half-and-halfs on your table and says, “Here’s y’all some cream.” A nice way of giving. The Lord might have said, in the beginning, “Here’s y’all some light.”

Now. Say you drive on after breakfast through the nearest small town and you see a sign, with dents in it that have been touched up, and it says something like Ora Mae’s, and a picture of a chicken laying a shining egg, and you say, “Aw. That’s where we should have gone.”

You picture Ora Mae in there with the regulars, celebrating. She’s just fried her fifty thousandth egg without breaking a single yolk accidentally. There’s this cow horn she blows. And so on. That’s some good should. Bittersweet, but life enhancing, sort of.

Nobody should be all shouldist. Business has to be taken care of. And nobody wants to hear “Put your head on my shoulda.”

But here’s a borderline-positive bit of shouldism. Asked how to get somewhere in the Chapel Hill, North Carolina, area, you could just look blank and give the impression that knowing where Chapel Hill is, even, or that there is a Chapel Hill, is not anything that anybody needs to register. What I say is “I should know, as much time as I have spent there and as many family and friends as I have in the area…” Which would be more impressive if it were the Kathmandu area, but the point is, I am aware that I get lost around Chapel Hill. And, to my partial credit, I hold myself responsible.

The genius Memphis photographer William Eggleston would probably not take my point, there. Recently a story about him appeared in the Observer, of Great Britain. The interviewer brings out all the stories of Eggleston’s heavy drinking and smoking and pill taking and passing out in the yard and maintaining blatant multiple adulteries, and of him and a special girlfriend shooting at each other, not infrequently, inside the house.

Then the interviewer asks Eggleston, who is apparently still acting up in his late seventies, if he has any regrets. “I don’t think I regret things,” Eggleston says. “Maybe there’s some things I should.” And he smiles.

To get away with that, you have to be a very fine artist. And rich. And blessed. And a bad shot. That’s shrugging your shouldas.