I’m not a sports fanatic, but I do follow baseball. I was a Cubs fan while I lived in Indianapolis and a Giants and A’s fan soon after I moved to San Francisco. I followed and admired Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds. When the accusations came down that both power hitters had burnished and tarnished their records by taking steroids, I had to think about what that meant.
People alter their minds and bodies all the time. Botox. Body lotions. Blueberries. Even if that record-breaking left fielder isn’t taking hormones, he is probably on a special diet and is trained in a special way to maximize his performance. In a similar reach-for-the-stars situation, did the Beatles, Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd drop some acid to reach new heights in music? There wouldn’t even be some forms of music without drugs. Has it made a difference in how we regard those who excelled?
In the case of Bonds, there had to be some excellent, inherent skill and a tremendous amount of devotion and work to achieve what he achieved with or without chemicals. Does it matter if he took a growth hormone? Is a work of art a work of art if the artist was on mescaline? Is a prize rose disqualified because the grower used a certain fertilizer? And what about those champion pumpkins? All that we do involves chemicals. Our bodies and minds interact with chemicals all the time — food, some call it. Models and sumo wrestlers go on special diets. More protein, more carbs. At what point is messing around with your body immoral? I don’t wish to sit in judgment, though, these days I prefer it to standing.
Now, my confession: I write on steroids. My just released book was written while I was on steroids. I’m on steroids right now. My writing used to be fueled by caffeine and nicotine and, by the end of the day, more than a couple of glasses of wine. Many of the great writers couldn’t function without whiskey or marijuana or both. Burroughs and Ginsburg and Hunter Thompson wouldn’t have dillydallied with something as lightweight as wine and cigarettes. The legendary writers and artists who spent time in Paris treated themselves to wormwood — Absinthe. None of this was good for the consumer. But we’ve decided to indict our sports stars for doing whatever it took to achieve the highest form of their art while we romanticize the use of drugs by artists as an exciting and incredible part of the way they lived. A sacrifice for their art? I don’t know. How are we supposed to measure these things?
Before the arcs descend, I should explain. I spent a good portion of 2011 and 2012 recovering from surgeries — one lung surgery and two brain surgeries, the latter leaving me with a condition called persistent radiation necrosis — swelling and inflammation of the brain. During most of that time I wrote in fits and starts. I rode the ups and downs caused by attempts to control the condition by medical professionals experimenting with various levels of various steroids. Sometimes I sat and stared at the wall. This was the zombie-in-the-chair phase.
Then there was the steroid bat-out-of–hell phase. Despite motor nerve impairment of my left side, I would suddenly have more energy than I knew what to do with. My mind raced. I didn’t have the presence of that mind to think through a new novel, but I worked. I self-published e-book and trade paperback versions of four previously published early novels and a new novella I had completed before my extended medical entanglements. I also started this blog and completed the first and very rough draft of an autobiography using the extra punch of the otherwise unpleasant drug. A veritable whirlwind was I.
All this was without the use of my left hand. Typing was and is a clown act. The fingers on the left flail about while the fingers on the right do precisely what they’re told and then correct the missteps of the left. Typos reign because of this half-assed dance, but also multiply because of the strange blind spots in my left eye. Proof reading has never been my strong suit, but this is ridiculous.
Though the overall brain condition persists, the steroids work well enough and they are likely an on-going part of my life to keep the swelling at a minimum. Possibly, the appropriate sustaining dosage has been found. Now I sleep a lot, nod off, nap. But when I’m awake I am or seem to be surprisingly clear-headed. And I write. And I write and I write. I am compelled as if by a mild madness to do so.
I am certainly no Barry Bonds, no major league all-star of the writing world. I’m still on a farm team. But how am I to weigh the effects of the steroids on what I create? However good or bad they are, are my accomplishments valued less because I’m taking steroids? I don’t ask this to get reassurance or sympathy. I’m fine with things as they are. In fact, dealing with some of the weird effects of my condition is fascinating. In many cases I must consciously engineer movement when dealing with things on the left side. New worlds have opened. Getting out of a chair at a restaurant requires serious forethought. It is a feat of engineering. I must consciously use the hinges that are elbows, knees and and ankles and bones as levers and braces, switching from a wayward left set of machinery to a predicable, intuitive right. The fact that I am unaware of my blind spot even though I know I have one and even know roughly where it is remains puzzling. I would have expected there to be darkness where I could not see. It is not the case. I think I see everything that’s there; but I don’t. That notion has broader ramifications. I see the world differently. This isn’t a bad thing for a writer.
So aside from the extra pounds and a round face I can happily blame on steroid side effects rather than my lack of discipline, all is well. Life is fine. But I remain curious. What I’d like is an answer to the question I originally asked. Put the official baseball rules aside for a moment. There are no such rules for artists, dancers, musicians and writers. In the overall scheme of things, even if he took steroids, did Barry Bonds really cheat? What about athletes who have personal trainers and nutritionists? What about psychoactive drugs — anti-depression and anti-anxiety prescriptions? I could see how anti-anxiety medication could help a shortstop. Might such pills be considered performance enhancers as well? What about so-called natural supplements as if anything in this world isn’t natural? Deadly maybe, but not unnatural.