light my fire

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The vacation cottage we rent every year off the coast of Maine has one of those old gas stoves you have to light with a match. My 9-year-old son, as a boy his age is almost predestined to do, has become obsessed with anything dangerous. Fire, sparklers, cap guns, poppers, and basically anything else that catches fire or explodes. I blame myself; I let him watch Mythbusters, where most of what they do is blow things up or set them on fire. He’s been pleading with me to let him light the stove when it’s time to cook something. To turn the gas knob, strike the kitchen match, set it to the gas jet, and hear and see the whoosh of blue flame. I admit; every time I do it, I get a little thrill. I understand the danger, the excitement.

My first reaction as a liberal, modern-day parent is no effing way. Too dangerous. He might light his flannel sleeper, or his hair, or himself, on fire. But then I think; what would a boy his age living, say, 150 years ago, be expected to do? In 1860, if we were alive and living in Maine, he’d probably be expected to harness the horses and drive them into town himself to pick up our order at the dry-goods store. Or plow the field with an ox. Or chop firewood with a really sharp and heavy axe. Or take the dairy cow to market. Or shoot a fox with a rifle.

Sometimes we think we are living in dangerous times. Maybe more dangerous than any other time humans in history have had to face. Terrorist attacks, tornadoes, hacking, superbugs, government surveillance, child molesters, junk food, environmental apocalypse. But really, driving a few horses into town would have been much more dangerous.

Just last night, my son had a raging earache that he probably got from jumping off a ledge into an old granite quarry here on the island. He probably hit the water at a funny angle and got some water trapped in his ear or behind his eardrum. He was crying out in pain, practically squeezing the blood from my fingers and almost kicking through a window. We paged the doctor on call, he met us at the clinic, looked into his ear with a scope, gave him some ibuprofen and ear drops, and sent us on our way. Today, Owen is fine, acting as if yesterday’s trauma never happened. Think of all the interconnected systems that had to work just right last night to keep my son healthy. A working phone system, an actual doctor on call, basic pain relievers and antibiotics, employer-sponsored health insurance. 150 years ago, my son might still be writhing in agony, with my wife and I almost powerless to do anything save cook up some ineffective home remedy over the wood-fired stove. Of course we don’t want our children to suffer, but neither can we baby them and protect them at every turn. That’s why I let my son light the stove this morning. And why I probably will again.

It can’t be any more dangerous than jumping into a quarry.

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