Image by Jonathan Alvarez
My great-aunt and great-uncle are eighty-eight and eighty-nine years old, respectively, and I love them to pieces.(My great-uncle Avi was eighty-nine and my great-auntie Dora was eighty-eight at the time this story happened.)
They have a summer house that they bought for about $1.50 in 1970 and has grown so tremendously in value that we probably could not afford to buy a blade of grass on that island at today’s prices. (I am exaggerating. I don’t know the exact price or the exact date. The point is, it was way less expensive to buy vacation property in this location at that time.)
I had my first birthday there, and I have come back almost every August since. For a million years, we have timed our visit around a 5k race that my husband takes very seriously, and the rest of us try to complete in under six hours without requiring crutches, ankle tape, or a police escort.
Normally, my aunt and uncle register us for the race. They sign us up at the community center and then go across the street for a single slice of pizza, which they share while sitting in rocking chairs on the porch.
This year, for the first time ever, in-person sign-up is no longer an option. All registration has to take place online, on the internet.
My great-aunt gives me this information and tells me that they are looking forward to seeing us, that they will be bringing lawn chairs to cheer us on, and after the race we can all go across the street for pizza, or we can do takeout and bring the pizza home.
I get off the phone with her and promptly forget everything except the promise of pizza. The place across the street from the community center makes their pies with farm-fresh toppings ranging from eggs to fennel. They have plain cheese and pepperoni too.
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Mark The Date... Now
Several weeks pass, and it occurs to me that the sign-up for the race must be soon. I check the website, and, thankfully, I haven’t yet missed the date — online sign-up is in a couple of days. I mark the date and set an alarm on my phone.
That day begins like any other. I get up, go to work, pick up my coffee at Tim Horton’s on the way, and mute the alarm for online race sign-up. Check my email, mute the alarm again, do some more work, spill my XL coffee (two-milk-two-sugar), wipe up the mess, and then scroll through to see what my alarm was going on about earlier. Oh, right — race sign-up.
I find the website, register all five of us (my husband and me and our three kids), and click for payment. It doesn’t go through.
Refresh again, use another credit card, wonder what’s going on.
Race is full.
Race is full?
Race sold out in less than two hours. Registration opened at 8 a.m. and by 9:37 a.m. there were no spots to be had. It’s now after two o’clock in the afternoon.
How can that be possible?
Since the beginning of time, every summer — bar none! — someone from my aunt and uncle’s vacation house has run in the road race. They have a commemorative T-shirt from every single year. They had a photographer take pictures of all the shirts, which they had made into a poster that they donated to the race committee. The poster was sold as a fundraiser for the race’s thirty-fifth birthday.
Those T-shirts are only available to those running the race. And this year’s T-shirt will now not be available to any of us, because we are not registered and therefore will not be running.
I Will Admit I Was Wrong... Later
How am I going to break them the news? This is not going to be easy. I will admit that I was wrong, but I decide to put it off until I get there, hoping that once they see our brave faces, some of the sting will be gone. I will bring it up after dinner but before Jeopardy! That way, we’ll be relaxed, but discussion will have to be quick because their show is about to start.
We drive close to eight hours, take a ferry, drive another forty-ish minutes, and pile out of the car. I bound up the stairs to greet them while Dave and the kids unpack the car. I take one look at my uncle’s face, and my rational break-it-to-them-gently plan flies out the window.
I blurt out immediately: “We aren’t registered for the race. I tried my best but the race sold out too quickly, and I couldn’t get us a spot.” I am barely holding back tears. I feel so bad that this thirty-plus-year tradition is about to be broken by me, just because I muted an alarm. I didn’t realize how quickly the spots would sell out.
My uncle takes both my hands in his. I kneel, so that we are face-to-face. “Amy,” he says, his voice raspy. “I am really, really disappointed in you.”
Oh man. Kill me now. A knife in the heart would have been less painful.
He is the last person on earth I would ever want to disappoint. And over something so preventable. How am I going to fix this? It’s unfixable. I am still next to him, frozen in place, when my husband comes in and surveys the scene.
“We’ll go by the community center first thing in the morning,” he says. “I’m sure we’ll be able to buy a T-shirt.” He is completely calm.
“No, we won’t,” I wail. “That’s part of the shtick of this thing. You can’t buy the shirts. You have to run the race to get them. This is a disaster.”
My husband has seen actual disasters, and he knows what they look like. Missing an online registration and being short a T-shirt, even a collectible that’s part of a long-standing family tradition, is not a real disaster. He tries to tell me that, but there is no reasoning with me; even Alex Trebek is not making me feel better.
I Refuse To Humiliate Myself!
The next morning, we wake up, and Dave wants to go to the community center to try our luck. I don’t. He tries every persuasion technique in his husband handbook, and I am not willing to budge. “There is no way I’m going to humiliate myself by begging complete strangers at the community center to let me into a race that sold out fair and square,” I say.
“C’mon, Amelah. (* He calls me Amelah. Ay-muh-lah.) We can go across the street after, and get pizza,” he says.
“Okay fine. But I’m not going in. You can try your luck with the race people, I’m waiting in the car.”
We get to the community center, and it’s buzzing with activity. Banners and signs and balloons and music. There are a few vendors around selling water bottles and windbreakers. People are lining up to get their race packets and their numbers. The race is tomorrow.
Now, my husband knows something important about me that has led us to this moment. He knows that I have no self-control when it comes to problem solving. If you put a challenging dilemma in front of me, I will stop at nothing to help solve it. He knows that as soon as we pull up to the race headquarters, and we see people picking up and trying on their shirts, I will get out of the car and try to get at least one of us (him) registered for this race. Even though I know it’s impossible. I know there’s a waiting list. I know there is absolutely no—
Wait, is that woman carrying a clipboard?
The Truth and Nothing But The Truth!
I go up to the woman. Her name tag says Donna. She is very busy. I wait my turn. I introduce myself to her. I explain the situation, beginning with my great-aunt and -uncle and their commitment to the race, and ending with my miscalculation regarding how quickly the registration would sell out online. “And that’s why, if at all possible, I would like to register just one person for the race, and get them a T-shirt.”
“Wait right here,” Donna says. “I may be able to help you.”
She comes back ten minutes later with a registration form, a race packet, and the coveted T-shirt. She hands them to me. “I have so many people here telling me that they registered online, but the confirmation didn’t go through, or that they got an email, but they forgot to print it. You can’t imagine how many cats ate online registration this year. You are the only one that told me the truth,” she says. “Thank you for being honest. You told me the truth about what went wrong, and you were genuine. That’s why I wanted to help you.”
Although it was painful to admit I was wrong, had I not been transparent with Donna-with-her-clipboard, she would not have been so eager to give us a registration package. What made me the most sympathetic was that I was honest and real. I explained what was really wrong, and that’s why she helped me solve my problem.
When complaining, the easiest route is often the most truthful. Even though it can be hard to concede your own mistakes, it’s worth it if you get to come home bearing good news, a coveted T-shirt, and of course, a broccoli rabe–spinach–pesto pizza for lunch.
Questions for Reflection
- Is being right important to you? Can you think of a time where being right got in the way of figuring out a solution to a problem?
- Would you choose the 5k or pizza? Be honest.
- Is there anyone in your life you would hate to disappoint? Would this prevent you from speaking your mind or encourage you to speak up?
©2019 by Amy Fish. All Rights Reserved.
Excerpted with permission from the book: I Wanted Fries With That
Publisher: New World Library. www.newworldlibrary.com.
I Wanted Fries with That: How to Ask for What You Want and Get What You Need
by Amy Fish
Amy reveals pragmatic methods to redress grievances with civility, honesty, and fairness for everyone involved — whether you’re trying to right the wrongs of the world or just claim the french fries you ordered.
(Also available as a Kindle edition and an Audiobook.)
About the Author
As ombudsman at Concordia University in Montreal, Amy Fish resolves complaints from students, faculty, and staff. She has written for the Huffington Post Canada, Reader’s Digest, and the Globe and Mail and appeared on CBC Marketplace and CTV News. Visit her website at https://www.amyfishwrites.com/