I knew they were going to win.
My son confessed as we left the movie theatre. We had just seen McFarland, USA — an inspirational true story about a group of down-and-out Mexican immigrant kids who band together around their new coach and win the state running championship. (It’s not a spoiler if it already happened, right?)
They wouldn’t have made a movie about them if they had lost, he explained. He already knew that people will cheer for underdogs, but they don’t celebrate losers.
You’re too smart, I told him. But wasn’t it great to hear their story?
He kept looking up at the stands, and mouthing his anxiety, swinging an arm or tugging at his track pants. It wasn’t like him. Usually he was relaxed, messing around with his track mates until the run.
But today was different. Was it the new shoes (it was his first race in spikes)? Was it because his coach was on vacation and couldn’t pep-talk him? Was it because we had just seen that movie a few days ago, and he felt the underdog pressure?
I don’t know what it was. I just know that the field was for ‘runners only’ and I couldn’t help him. I couldn’t even shout out to him because he was too far away. I had to just watch my nervous, almost-ten-year-old son figure it out on his own.
Run as hard as you can, and then try to push yourself a little bit more! But not too hard out of the gate! Save your energy for the last leg. But not too much energy, or you’ll fall behind! You have to strike a balance! Do your best, but then a little bit more!
He couldn’t hear me because I was too far away and because these were just very loud thoughts. Every time he looked above to our section of the stands, I gave him a thumbs up or waved to show support.
I watched an older track mate put her hands on his shoulders and say something motivating, looking him straight in the eyes. I saw him take a deep breath and shake off some of the nerves. Finally, after hours of watching other kids run, Sebastian was standing on the track in lane 3.
On your mark.
Was he ready? There he was, so small and so big, in his green shirt and freshly cut hair that would never stay in place. I could feel my chest tighten.
He found his place. He looked serious, focused. I remembered that he’d done this before.
As the starter pistol went off, he wasn’t the slowest to start, but he wasn’t the fastest either. There were two kids in front of him. He had two laps and almost 400 metres to catch up with them. I watched him pick his pace and push into the first corner in 3rd, then sprint down the track to the far corner. As the boys completed the distant curve, they were running back toward the stands. Sebastian was still in the same position but not too far behind.
A bell rang to let everyone know this was the final lap. And he was slowly catching up. Still in third, they all disappeared behind the debris of other events cluttering the field: high-jump poles and shot-put nets.
I wasn’t sure what to expect as the boys came back into view for the last 30 metre push. I felt that kind of hope where your stomach is beating too fast and your heart feels like it might be sick. Your muscles contract, your breathing stops, your senses are focused.
My daughter was screaming. Her younger eyes could see that he had come around the bend in second place. Now my wife was screaming. The finish line was thirty metres away, and he was closing on the leader. Now I was screaming. Their steps fell in slow motion as the gap between them tightened. In my fantasy he heard us cheering — which unlocked an energy reserve triggered by familial bonds — and overtook the kid in front. But there just wasn’t enough space or time. In a blur of padding feet, the race was over and Sebastian finished 2nd in his heat. We cheered and waved and watched the scoreboard.
His name was in lights and on the board, his time a full three seconds faster than his best time so far. The heats continued, with some faster groups, and his second place slid slowly downward until the final tally put him in 7th place. I wasn’t sure how he was going to react.
When he burst out of the field to meet us, he was holding a purple ribbon. I’m seventh in the whole province! he told us. Wow, I said, you were amazing out there. You ran exactly how you wanted to run: not too fast, and not too slow. And you’re only going to get better. I’m super proud of you.
I took his picture outside of the centre, in his track garb, wearing his running bib and sporting his ribbon. I felt so proud of him: not because of his placing but because he could overcome his anxiety to try his best. And he did it on his own. I sent it to my parents, who showered him in praise for his haircut and also his performance. They even added a few cherished dollars to his iTunes account as reward.
Dad, can you read to me?
It was time for bed after a very long day of track. Sure, I said. What would you like to read?
I want to read your book, he said.
The Oz one? I asked, surprised. I’ll have to go get my Kindle.
Nine days earlier I had launched my first ‘book experiment’ on iBooks and then Kindle.
About a month before that I had been struck by a crazy idea: take a popular book in the public domain, make some alterations to it, and then sell it online. I had visions of early retirement as a second income came pouring in from my flash of genius: Classics with a Twist, I would call my new publishing empire. I set to work on my first book, The Wonderful Witch of Oz, and wrote about the experience on Medium.
What does society deem ‘gender-appropriate’ behaviour? Switch typical male and female roles, and the results are…medium.com
My marketing plan was fool-proof: publish the article, wait for it to go viral, and then sell a ton of books! Unburdened by the weight of a mortgage or the obligations of a real job, I could write while travelling to safe-but-exotic locations! I could wake up to an ocean sunrise, black coffee, and a morning of research and writing on my netbook…
After an arduous month of writing, editing, formatting, and researching, I finally published the book, first on iBooks, then Amazon. I had that same stomach-heart-swap feeling in my chest as I did watching my son come running around that final corner. What was going to happen now? Would that tightness translate into untold riches? My fantasy brain kicked in and imagined exponential sales, a mention on Buzzfeed, a feature on Oprah, and a spot on the New York Times Best-Seller List.
After announcing my launch on Facebook and Twitter, I waited for the purchases to start coming in. My Dad bought one! My brother bought one! My friend Scott bought one! And that was about it. After three days I peaked at 4 sales. So I bought my first few dollars of media on Facebook to boost a post about the book. I ended up reaching almost 3,500 people, and 17 took the time to look. This translated into exactly zero sales.
But I was doing everything backward. I was ignoring almost two decades of experience in adverting and marketing. I had brand blindness.
Your performance is so brightly lit that you cannot see your missing audience.
The idea, shining in your face, blocks out reality. You lose the ability to get out of your own head and put things in perspective. It’s why companies hire advertising agencies: to step back and view the big picture, then craft a compelling story to sell an idea/product/service/brand/message.
What was my book about? Feminism? Masculism? Gender reversal? Transgender issues? Or perhaps it wasn’t about sex or gender at all. Modernizing Fairytales? Reading the same book again but in a different way? I hadn’t made it clear. And I hadn’t picked a target audience. ‘People who read books’ was a bit too vague. I needed to step way back, figure out my strategy, then tell a compelling story.
I wanted to be the underdog that wins. But that doesn’t happen right out of the gate. And it certainly doesn’t happen without considerably more training, effort, exursion, and heart.
Just like my son wasn’t going to win first place in the Provincials without focus and passion. And even that might not be enough. What mattered was that he put himself out there, and I came to support him, to witness.
I bought it.
You don’t need your Kindle, Dad. I have my own copy. He was smiling.
I was suddenly struck by a complely different physical sensation — a warm release of tension, of surrender. Are you serious? I asked, my voice catching in the swell of emotion that came over me. He had taken his own reward and spent it to support one of my creations. I brushed a tear from my cheek, sniffling as I entered his room.
I’ve already read the first two chapters! he told me, holding out his mini-tablet. It’s great! Start here where Theodore meets the Scarecrow.
As I settled into his warm covers to read this old new fairytale, I realized the coach was being coached. It didn’t matter how many books I’d sold or what place I was in. What mattered was that I put myself out there, and my son was proud of me.