The Truth, Mainly - 12/20/2004

Any rules for enhancing performance?
by Leon Satterfield

As a Christmas gift to readers of this column, I'm not going to write about Our President this time.

I probably shouldn't write about his party either, but I've been pondering for the last two months an ABC Primetime Live poll that reveals that "more Republicans (56 percent) are very satisfied with their sex lives than Democrats (47 percent)."

As Huck Finn might say, it don't seem natural somehow, but I reckon it's so. I'm ashamed to admit I can't help wondering if drugs are involved. Not that I have any first-hand knowledge about such drugs, but I have seen them advertised on television.

That leads me to a broader subject: unnatural aids to enhance all sorts of performance.

The unnatural aid that's been getting the most press lately has been the steroids taken by an estimated five percent of major-league baseball players, Barry Bonds being the most notable.

Steroids are supposed to make them more muscled up so they can hit the ball farther. And baseball fans, of whom I am one, are highly principled folks who are just shocked.

Barry Bonds is a prodigious hitter of prodigious home runs. He's hit so many that next summer he could easily pass Babe Ruth's 714 total, and maybe even Hank Aaron's all-time record of 755.

And most of us baseball fans are very cranky about that prospect. It's not because he might pass the Babe and Hank. It's because he might be using unnatural aids to do it.

Baseball fans like their aids natural. George Will, for example, in a column on this page earlier this month, praised muscles that come from lifting weights and eating spinach.

And that, dear reader, led me to yet another epiphany.

Here it is: As unnatural as it is to use steroids to enhance muscles, are steroids any less natural than eating spinach and lifting weights?

Spinach seems like a natural food for cows and Popeye, but not for non-comic strip humans. And the more I think about it the more convinced I am that weightlifting is an unnatural act. I've tried it several times and I always drop something heavy on my toe.

Had someone interrupted my weightlifting to offer me a pill that would enhance my muscles, I'd have been sorely tempted. Swallowing the pill would seem much more natural than lifting the weight.

And reinforcing my epiphany is the fact that Americans are gobbling up pills that enhance all sorts of performance.

As Carl Elliott wrote in the NY Times last Tuesday, "college students take Ritalin® to improve their academic performance. Musicians take beta blockers to improve their onstage performance. Middle-aged men take Viagra® to improve their sexual performance. Shy people take Paxil® to improve their social performance."

I'm claustrophobic and I take Xanax® to improve my flying performance. I won't be shoehorned into an airplane seat unless I pop my Xanax® pill first. I suppose its an unnatural solution, but without it I'd kick out an airplane window and probably be in trouble.

And how about efforts in sports to transcend the natural by appealing to the supernatural? You know, those pre-game huddles that turn into little prayer meetings asking God to be on our side in pursuit of victory.

Is it fair to have an omniscient and omnipotent Being on our side? Any more fair than using steroids?

To see just how alarming that unfairness is, take another look at Mark Twain's little piece called "The War Prayer."

In it he quotes a long publicly spoken prayer ending with "Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord our God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!"

There is, Twain writes, an unspoken prayer that always accompanies prayers for victory. The unspoken part goes like this:

"O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded."

By the same logic, in the pre-game huddle turned prayer-meeting, who's to say there's not an unspoken prayer that goes something like this:

"O Lord our God, help us to wrench from its socket the throwing arm of their quarterback; help us to twist the ankles of their running backs until they pop. Make their coach a temporary imbecile who sends in bad plays."

A question to ponder: Is it a greater threat to global well-being to ask for unnatural offensive athletic help through chemistry? Or for supernatural offensive military help through prayer?

Oops. Sorry about that. I promised not to talk about Our President.

Merry Christmas anyway.

Paxil is a tradmark of GlaxoSmithKline. Ritalin is a trademark of Novartis. Viagra and Xanax are trademarks of Pfizer.


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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