The time has come for hyperbolists throughout the nation to find a better metaphor than "on steroids" to satisfy their exaggeration jones. I mean, we get it -- calling the Fukushima nuclear crisis "Chernobyl on steroids" means that it's really, really big. Same goes for the FBI as "Cointelpro on steroids," California's Bell scandal as "corruption on steroids" and Libya goings-on as "Mission Creep on steroids." Dare we hope that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell signaled the beginning of the end last Sunday on Face the Nation with his wacko characterization of government regulators as "bureaucrats on steroids?"
What will we do when we need to describe actual steroids -- for example, when the next Major League Baseball player tests positive for the stuff?
We are using up our nation's reserve of precious steroid metaphors is my point. While we wait for a timelier catchphrase to bubble up from the streets, I'd recommend we rush into use, at least temporarily, the entertaining '60s trope, "on acid."
A new research report from scientists at Johns Hopkins claims that, under the right circumstances, tripping on psilocybin -- acid's close cousin, aka "'shrooms" -- can facilitate profound, long-lasting spiritual experiences with minimal risk. Over 90 percent of the carefully chosen volunteers rated their psychic adventures among "the top five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives."
Granted, ranking one's revelations is a bit counter-spiritual, but the survey also showed that a similar percentage of participants reported increased well-being a year later. And while high doses of the drug resulted in great anxiety and/or delusions among a third of the participants, moderate reductions in dosage combined with empathic professional supervision seem to have largely eliminated bad trips.
Typical reactions from participants ranged from the blissful to the pretentious to the self-congratulatory: "Virtually eliminated all religious practices; much more spiritual now," "Less concerned with the appearance of 'spirituality,' while realizing more that everything is sacred," "I now believe I have something important to tell people about how the universe works."
In the unsupervised real-world, commentator Andrew Sullivan, a Catholic, blogged that his experiment with 'shrooms several years ago "deepened my faith, brought me closer to lifting the veil my ego places over the beauty of God's creation... and had me pondering the Incarnation and praying effortlessly."
A huge caveat: only volunteers with what the scientists describe as "spiritual orientation" were accepted, while those with "certain types of personal or family psychiatric histories or other signs of vulnerabilities that might make psilocybin inadvisable" were excluded. Which raises the question of how those otherwise-oriented might fare. Would an atheist achieve a deeper understanding of the randomness of the cosmos? Would an agnostic attain oneness with his ignorance of what the hell's going on? Could a sociopath bask in a more profound desire to inflict pain on other sentient beings?
The potential reemergence of "on acid" is encouraged by the massive public release of psychedelic pioneer Timothy Leary's papers, which include trippy anecdotes from such luminaries as Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, along with thousands of pages on the psilocybin-induced musings of Harvard graduate students and other guinea pigs-in-shit.
These observations -- coupled with a look at Salon's trippiest movies hall of fame -- suggest that psychedelic walkabouts are more likely to heighten one's already-established persona than to unlock universal secrets. They also bring to mind my experiences at LA Weekly in the '80s and '90s. Back then, we liked to call our enterprise "Lou Grant on acid." (Now, of course, the London-based Guardian is both "a newspaper on steroids" and "the New York Times on steroids.")
One of our board members was Oscar Janiger, a dapper, self-important psychiatrist whose tales of his own acid trips appear in the Leary treasure trove along with those of his most famous patient, Cary Grant. Janiger couldn't tell newspaper from flypaper, but could well have been tripping when, at the height of one spectacularly contentious board meeting, he rose from an hours-long stupor to offer something a bit short on spiritual wisdom: "I'm sensing anger in the room."
Unless you're willing to commit a crime, of course, having experiences "on steroids" or "on acid" are academic. It's against the law to use psilocybin or anabolic steroids, a joke considering the vast quantities of alcohol and nicotine Americans legally ingest every single day.
Perhaps "on steroids" will be seen as the product of a fading "size matters" America -- not only Hummers, muscles and home-run counts, but also stock markets, home prices and political lies. There's a lot of evidence that we're more spiritual today, even when we're not "on acid."
Meanwhile, until better language comes along, hyperbolists unsatisfied by either "steroids" or "acid" might find creative ways to combine the two. One only needs to take in Sarah Palin's reinvention of Paul Revere's ride to see that the former Alaska governor is the mean girl from your high school on steroids and acid.