Sunday, July 3, 2011

True Tooth Tales

My 11-year old son got his two front teeth knocked out in a Little League All-Star game today. Freak thing, really: he swung hard on a good pitch, connected with the ball-- but instead belting it out past the infield, he creamed it straight down, where it bounced hard on a rubberized home plate and came straight back up into his mouth. He felt the teeth let go, covering his mouth with his left hand and dropping the bat and whirling to find his mom and me in the stands all in one motion. Scary moment.

But it wasn't the first of its kind. As a matter of fact, this is fourth time he's been cranked in the mouth. The first, in early 2009, was his own fault. Spinning himself dizzy in the school cafeteria, he literally fell on his face. Both adult front teeth, smashed out on the concrete floor. The next was the random flying elbow of a classmate a year later; the one after that when his chin fell out of his hand as he dropped onto a glossy laminate desktop. Each time, the same: a perfect jagged hole, as though he took a bullet to his smile.

We put it all back, of course. His dentist, who drove 50 miles from her vacation home on the 4th of July weekend to assist us and who is amazing in her commitment and her patience, re-glued his face together. Again. I'm told there is even Little League insurance for players, something I wish I knew when the same kid got his thumb crushed by a fastball in April. (I know, perhaps he should take up less brutal, less injurious sport. Lacrosse, maybe. Or rugby.)

But at the dentist the conversation took an obvious turn, to the issue of mouthguards. The dentist wrote my son a note to the Little League umpires which would allow him back into the series. But she also asserted her expectation, with our blessing, that he wear a mouthguard for the remainder of the season. She also expressed her hope that the same be demanded of the rest of the team. And as long as she was wishing on a star, she asked that the policy be extended league-wide.

At which point I began to have second thoughts on the whole thing. Required? For everyone? It just makes me wonder when is enough. How many rules? How much sacrifice for safety? How much do we give for the "common good"?

This debate has been raging forever, in various forms. Boys are required to wear a cup in many sports. Shin guards for all soccer players. Helmets for football, lacrosse, ice hockey and field hockey. Helmets for cyclists and motorcyclists. Life jackets on boats. Seat belts in cars and on airplanes. No cigarette or cigar smoking in public places. The list is long, and seems only to be getting longer.

I'm an American. I believe in that which America purports to stand for: freedom. Personal freedom-- of religion, of expression, of belief. And to a large degree, of action. If I want to attempt the Half Dome in Yosemite National Park as my first ever rock climbing attempt, I need a permit but I am welcome to try. Should I choose to row a boat to Hawaii, I can be accused of irrationality or stupidity, but it's my choice. If I wish to start an online "dating" site for married people hoping to have an affair, you can call me immoral or societally destructive, and you can certainly choose not to solicit my business. But it is my right to do so. For now.

Where is the line? At what point should my prerogative be taken away? The obvious and oft-repeated answer is, when my actions endanger or are destructive to others, or to the nation, then I should be stopped. And I largely agree with that. We don't want thousands of brain-damaged former motorcyclists with insufficient insurance eating up our tax dollars for their hospital care.

I can see the distinction between forcing a 9-year old football player to wear a helmet-- he hasn't the experience to possess good judgment-- and forcing a middle-aged salesman to buckle up as his flight from Durham to St. Louis barrels down the runway. The gentleman should know better. Clearly we have a responsibility to take care of the children.

But to what degree? Surely there is a difference between protecting the child's brain and protecting his teeth. What's the next step? Shall we require wrist guards on skateboarders and inline skaters? All red meat cooked to medium, or well-done? Condoms for all sexual activity not intended for conception? Where is that line, exactly? And while I'm at it, what shall the penalties be?

We are chasing that old saw of utilitarianism, doing the most good for the most people. Which conceptually I understand. It's logical, it's reasonable and it sounds great. But what are we losing along the way?

Drifting to Fifty  |  Random unrelated nugget of the week:
Spend a couple extra bucks on a silicon spatula for cooking and baking to replace your rubber and plastic ones. You will never go back.

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