The Balance Beam of Life

When I watch gymnasts on the balance beam, I think of Genesis, the band, mid-to-late Phil Collins era. I discovered Genesis some time after the release of the 1983 LP, “Genesis.” You may remember that record for such hits as “That’s all,” “Taking It All to Hard,” and the jaunty ditty “Illegal Alien” (“It’s no fun/ Being an illegal alien”). Although I am ashamed to admit it, at the time I thought “Genesis” was a brilliant title for the band’s 12th studio album, and I thought they were a brilliant band.

I bought a number of Genesis records –“Abacab,” “Duke” — on cassette. I must have listened to them a lot – I still know most of the words, and hearing those songs still summons bile from the bottom of my stomach – but I only really clearly remember listening to Genesis once. I was in the back of the station wagon owned by my soccer coach, and we were on a long journey to a tournament in Maryland or Virginia.

I was 11 or 12 at the time — it was the Mary Lou Retton era in gymnastics — and I had made the “traveling team” of my local soccer club in suburban PA. That is, I was beyond the period when I was put on the royal blue or the maroon team and only played intramural games. Instead I was selected for a team that faced all the other clubs in the area and sometimes in other states.

Because I went to a Catholic school in a different neighborhood – a fancier, older section of Philadelphia – than most of my club teammates, I wasn’t very close to them. And because I was shy, my coach, Mr. Reynolds, his son Jason (a star forward on the team, of course), and the three or four other players in the car frightened me terribly.

I retreated into Genesis — “No Reply at All,” “Home by the Sea.” But somewhere along the way, Mr. Reynolds asked us to take off our headphones (It was the era of the Walkman), and listen to the car stereo. He played a tape unlike any I’d heard before. It was a motivational speech, intended to get us ready for the tournament. A man’s deep voice, rising, falling, and dramatically pausing, filled the car:

“If someone offered you fifty dollars to walk across a balance beam – like the kind in gymnastics — and they placed that balance beam on two bricks just a foot off the ground, you’d do it, wouldn’t you? You wouldn’t hesitate. It would be easy.

“But take that same beam and put it across two buildings, 100 feet off the ground, and ask, would you do that for fifty dollars? Would you?”

The car was silent. No one made eye contact with anyone else. The voice got louder.

“What’s changed? The beam’s the same. It’s still wide enough to walk on. Same reward. That fifty dollars sure would be nice. Wouldn’t it? You could buy yourself a nice big steak. So what’s changed? I’ll tell you what: the risk. That’s all that’s different.”

The voice went on, urging us to walk across balance beams and ignore dangers and focus on goals. See the goal. Be the goal. I remember feeling like it was the voice of an alien. It seemed pernicious, unhinged, maybe even psychotic. In retrospect, I think it was the first time that I had confronted the America of self-help books and new religions. Maybe I am just exaggerating. Maybe it was the Genesis, or the long car ride, or my social anxiety, but it seemed like I was facing something sinister: the dark side of radical individualism, the cult of self-empowerment.

Now when I watch the Olympic gymnasts teetering on the edge of their real balance beams, I think of that voice booming through the back of the station wagon, trying to force a shy pre-teen me to recreate myself. I imagine the gymnasts 100 feet off the ground. I feel the fear I did then.

Don’t fall, I think. Don’t do it.

Get down off that beam. Why risk it?

Then I think of Phil Collins, and I feel a little sick.

Some names were changed to protect us all.