Zibby Owens: Hi, everybody. Thanks so much listening. I hope that you have had a chance to check out We Found Time,, my new online magazine. We have such amazing essays out this week. I really hope you’ll take the time to go read them or send them to friends or see what you think. I’d love your feedback if you have any thoughts. All the essays on We Found Time are written by authors who have been on this podcast already. It’s original content. I think it’s really awesome. I really hope you’ll check it out.

Today, I’m on Skype with Amy Fish who’s the author of I Wanted Fries with That: How to Ask for What You Want and Get What You Need. She is the ombudsperson, also known as the Chief Complaints Officer at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, and regularly teaches, speaks, and writes about how to complain effectively. Her work has been published in Readers’ Digest, Hippocampus Magazine, the Costco magazine, HuffPost, and several other publications. She currently lives in Montreal.

Welcome, Amy. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Amy Fish: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. Could you please tell listeners what I Wanted Fries with That is about and also how you came up with that fabulous title?

Amy: The book, I Wanted Fries with That, is about how do you ask for what you want and get what you need. There are twenty-seven chapters. It starts off with little things, how to get greener lettuce. We work up to the bigger things like how to get the right break at work or how to negotiate with your spouse.

Zibby: How did you become the Chief Complaint Officer in life? How did you know that was something you would be good at? How did you get there? I’m always fascinated by people getting these really cool, perfect jobs and how they even knew they were around.

Amy: This is a really good story. I told it at my book launch, actually. My history is in healthcare. I’ve always worked in healthcare. I have a master’s in health admin. My husband was selling soap. He’d decided to start his own business. I went in the office to help him. I was doing collections on the phone. After a few years, thankfully the business did well and outgrew my non-expertise. I said to him, “Listen, I’m going to quit. I’m going to go back to my own career, but it’s going to take me a really long time because quality in healthcare, that’s such a narrow field.” The next day, I was putting down newspaper for my kids to paint. This was a long time ago. I put the career section down, and I saw an ad for an ombudsman at a Jewish nursing home. It was here in Montreal. They were looking for someone bilingual, English and French. They were looking for someone with a degree in health admin. They were looking for someone from the Jewish community. Zibby, it practically had my picture. It was all of my qualifications. I said, ombudsman, that’s interesting. I’m going to try it. I went for the interview. Within a week, I had a new job.

Zibby: Wow. Some things just fall into your lap. You can’t ignore the signs.

Amy: Really, I learned how to do it on the job, but I realized right away that it was a hand in a glove. It was a great fit for me.

Zibby: Your job dovetailed with your natural ability to speak up for yourself. Then you’ve shared this expertise with all of us now in this fantastic book, which I thought was so brilliant. You organized by the complainant. I love when the structure is a little bit like a wink-wink. Awesome.

Amy: It was hard to decide how to do it. I could’ve organized it by skill set, but I think this lent me the opportunity to be a little funnier, like how to keep someone alive when complaining or how to get on the — it gave me a little more opportunity for humor.

Zibby: When did you know you had a book in you?

Amy: This is actually my second book. My first book is called The Art of Complaining. It was the similar idea, but more of a gift book. I had been blogging since 2011. My great-uncle, may he rest in peace, was a philanthropist. He said to me, “You have so much to say. Why don’t you write a book? I’ll publish it.” I knew nothing about books. I sat down at my computer and wrote a book and handed it to him.

Zibby: That works.

Amy: He published my twelve-thousand-word little book. Then it ended up doing really, really well, knock wood. The deal I had with him was that I was not allowed to make money off the book. Anything that I made had to be given away to charity. I ended up with 2,500 books in my garage. I was like, what am I going to do now? I just had no knowledge. I had no idea what the publishing industry was, what an agent was. I knew nothing. I just got on the phone and started booking myself doing a lot of public speaking and a lot of touring and getting rid of the books. That’s how I looked at it. That’s how I became a writer. Then after that, I started going to writing conferences and learning about writing, and writing columns and doing more and more writing. That’s how it all came together.

Zibby: You got rid of all the books?

Amy: Oh, yeah, easily. It ended up that distribution was my biggest problem because everybody wanted the books. I was so lucky. I had books in my car. I had books in my purse. I was in the grocery store and people were like, “Aren’t you the one that wrote that book?” I’m like, “Sure, here you go. Pay it forward.” Or they would give me money and I’d just give it to the next charity that I bumped into.

Zibby: Wow, that’s so nice. Are you doing something similar with this book?

Amy: With this book, it’s a different situation because I have a publisher and it’s more formal. I knew that that’s what I wanted just because I’m not very good at logistics. I didn’t want the headache of having to track on Amazon and ship. I’m just not talented that way. I would for sure be mis-shipping everything. My books would be all wrong. I’m like the Lucille Ball of office management. I have no skills in that area.

Zibby: So why do people not stick up for themselves? Why do people need your book? which they obviously really, really do, both your books. What is wrong with us that we can’t say what we need?

Amy: Wrong with us is strong. I think a lot of us are reluctant because we don’t know how. That’s what I really believe. I think that if you start with the smaller things, you really can build up the muscle so that when it’s more difficult to complain, you’re used to it and you have your voice ready and you’re less intimidated. I think a lot of us don’t want to make waves. We don’t want to cause trouble. I think we want to be liked. We want to be friends with everybody. We have to remember that when we’re standing up for something, it’s not only for ourselves. It’s everyone in line behind you. Life is going to get better because you spoke up. I tell this to people all the time who come to me for advice. If you do nothing, then nothing’s ever going to change. That’s my nightmare, so that’s why I wrote the book.

Zibby: Wow, thank you for that. You have some really good tips. One of the chapters I liked the most was how to get somebody to stop using their cell phone at the dinner table because we have sort of a recurrent issue with that with two tweens and my husband and everybody else. What is the secret to getting somebody you’re with to stop using their phone at the table?

Amy: First of all, you can’t use your phone at the table.

Zibby: I don’t. I use it everywhere else, but that is the one place I put it down.

Amy: My story there is really about negotiation and finding something you could live with. Maybe it’s not realistic to have every single meal phone free, at least at the beginning. You could probably negotiate for a couple of meals a week. What I suggest is coming up with what you could live with. Let’s say it’s three meals a week, no phone. Then on the other nights, you say nothing because you got your way on the three nights. If that doesn’t work for your family, then I would also try it with a timer, so fifteen minutes phone free or twenty minutes phone free. Then you could have your phone at the end of dinner or at dessert or whatever works in your particular situation.

Zibby: Lately, I’ve been using the timer just to keep people at the table for that long. I was like, can we do eight minutes, all of us sitting down? Let’s go for ten. A lot of the book is about communication. A lot of it is communication, but even when it’s not yourself you’re sticking up for. The example you gave with the mother who brought a giant cupcake at a birthday party for her child. Then the rest of the kids, she didn’t bring cupcakes for. Tell me about that one.

Amy: Can you imagine?

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, no.

Amy: We’re at a birthday party. I think the kid was turning three. It comes time for the birthday cake to come out. The mom brings a giant cupcake that almost looked like a cake, icing dripping everywhere, and puts it in front of her kid and then passes around dry bakery cookies. I’m not sure if you have them in New York, but do you have a visual on them? They’re almost like the chocolate chips are sitting on top. They’re not the delicious Toll House cookies. And passes those around for the other kids. The kids start crying because they don’t understand what’s happening. You have a little tiny table with all the little chairs and all the kids pointing at the cupcake and going nuts. I thought, I have to tell this woman that that’s not appropriate, but I can’t tell her now in front of everybody. In my mind, I was helping her. I thought, I’m going to make this situation better for her so she doesn’t make this mistake again. That’s what was in my head. I waited until everyone had left. I gently went over to her and I said, “Look, I know this is your first kid. This is my third. You really have to bring the same treat for everybody.”

What I didn’t know, Zibby, is that this poor mom was hanging on by a thread and my comment to her was just the last straw. She took the cupcake and she threw the rest of it in the trash and said, “There. Now are you happy?” Words were exchanged. I felt terrible. On the other hand I thought, well, I did everything I could to make it better in the sense that I didn’t go on and on, on social media about her. I didn’t talk behind her back. I waited until everyone was gone. I was as gentle as I could be. You know what? I’m not sure if it was a mistake or not. I left with a giant question mark. Years later, I’m sitting in the movies. Who sits next to me but this woman? I joke in the book that I start riffling through my bag for dark sunglasses because I’m so embarrassed. I just wanted disguise. She said, “I just really wanted to thank you. I was having a dark day, but you were a hundred percent right. I did the wrong thing. I should’ve known better. You taught me a valuable lesson that day.”

Zibby: Wow. Don’t you feel like so much of the behavior that comes out of people that’s so awful is really just when they’re the ones having the worst days of their lives? It’s not that they’re bad people. If you just can tap into that, it kind of makes it all better.

Amy: Yeah, I think finding compassion is really key to getting along with people.

Zibby: That’s a much better way to say what I was just trying to say. Thank you. What about people who are running late? You have tips for this as well.

Amy: My number-one tip for when someone is running late is that it’s not fixable by you. No alarm clock that you’re going to get them or no gadget that’s going to help them organize their keys is going to help get them get out the door on time to meet you. That is where I talk about the serenity prayer, which is accepting the things you can change and knowing what you can’t change and knowing the difference, I think. It’s not in front of me, but it’s a very beautiful quote that has always resonated with me. I can’t make you on time. That’s the story in the book where someone has a family member who’s always, always late. It drives her crazy, but she can control what time dinner starts. If you invite people to your house and you have a recurring family event, let’s say Passover’s coming up and every year you have the Seder or you have your Easter dinner, whatever your family celebrates, Spring Solstice, and people are always late, then you don’t have to wait for them. You can start dinner when you start dinner. That’s how you cope with someone who’s always late. You don’t change them. You just decide what you’re willing to live with and what you’re not willing.

Zibby: Okay. What about the fake time?

Amy: I don’t think it works.

Zibby: No?

Amy: Look, whenever people have other solution alternatives to what I suggest, I always say, if it’s working for you, you don’t need me. If you have set up a fake time and you have a girlfriend who’s always late for lunch and so you just always tell her thirty minutes early and it always works, then great.

Zibby: It doesn’t always work. That’s why I need you.

Amy: I just think it’s more about, if I’m going to have lunch with that person, I have a decision to make. Either I’m going to bring some work with me and I’m going to sit and wait for them, or I’m going to tell them to pick me up on their way so that I’m not stuck waiting, or I’m going to do something to modify the situation so that it’s not final warnings and frustration. Something internally is making them late. It’s not for us to psychoanalyze. We’re not going to be able to resolve it. We just have to figure out the best way to work around it with the least amount of aggravation for us.

Zibby: This is all very wise advice. You mentioned in the work that you used to go to Weight Watchers, which I did for years and years. I don’t even know why I bothered because it all came back after my passionate five-year stint. Tell me a little bit about that.

Amy: I don’t even remember talking about that in the book. That’s funny. Me and weight is longer than a podcast. That’s a journey that we could go on a retreat and discuss. That’s just very long. I guess at some point I must have been on Weight Watchers. I was very young the first time. I think I was in fifth grade the first time I went on Weight Watchers. Then there was a certain extra allotment, like I got an extra cup of milk or something in those days. I don’t even remember talking about it. Huh, that’s funny.

Zibby: I feel like I have an extrasensory detector for that since it’s something I lived with for so long. Just to switch tones a little bit, most of your book was hilarious. Then you also referenced how you had lost over a hundred people in your family and your extended family during the Holocaust. That’s a lot of people to know that you had lost. I wanted to talk to you about that. What part of your family? Tell me a little more.

Amy: My dad’s family, so my Bubbe and my Zaidie, both my grandparents had lost siblings, and also the siblings that were married and had children. Then that entire branch of the family got almost wiped out. Two brothers escaped to Israel. One saw his wife and children perish, watched. The other one, they were separated. They somehow made it to what was Palestine at the time and became Israel, for the purpose of this conversation. They were there when Israel was declared a state. They were part of the original, original settlers. Then my grandparents came to Montreal. Then there were some that ended up in South America.

Zibby: Where were they from originally?

Amy: From Poland.

Zibby: Wow, I’m so sorry.

Amy: Thank you.

Zibby: Perhaps as a result, or not related, you said in the book how, really, you make a point of celebrating Shabbat dinner every Friday night if you’re not at a Disney-on-Ice concert or something.

Amy: I do.

Zibby: What do you think are the best parts about that ritual for you in your life?

Amy: Actually, I could tell you where it came from. When I was pregnant with Ezra who’s my oldest, he’s twenty now, I had a very difficult time. I was in and out of the hospital. I was really sick. I made a pledge that if I make it and this baby makes it, I will make Shabbat every week. I’ve almost not missed, almost not, probably less than ten times. I’m really strict about it, even if we’re away. We’ve been known to bring a challah into a restaurant if it’s that kind of week where we’re just not going to get to dinner. My kids have to be home for Shabbat, for sure, a hundred percent. They’re allowed to bring people, but for sure, Friday night is mine no matter what.

Zibby: That’s smart. Way to claim that early.

Amy: Yes. It’s always been like that because that’s my oldest kid, so they’ve grown up. The most important thing to me, that’s one for sure. We see my sister and her family, and my dad if he’s around. That’s the most important part, that the cousins grow up together. It’s just me and sister, so that the cousins all grow up together and they’re used to seeing each other every Friday. That’s the most important thing for us.

Zibby: That’s so nice. I remember once ending up at a hotel in Vegas. It was four o’clock. I called down and I was like, “I’m going to need a challah.”

Amy: Did they do it for you?

Zibby: They did it. It wasn’t exactly what I would call a challah, but it was close enough. They were deeply apologetic about the whole thing. How could we not find it? I’m like, you have every cuisine in the world here, just one loaf of bread.

Amy: That’s funny. We were once on a cruise. I made them go to the Chabad cruise Friday night. I’m really not nice about it. There was a sign for Jewish people, they’re doing services. I made everybody come to services and have dinner.

Zibby: I feel like I do not want to be on your bad side. I feel like you make people do what you want to do, and I am going to just coast along with this type of pleasant relationship.

Amy: That’s funny. My husband says that too. He says that to me all the time, “I don’t want to be on your bad side.” Usually, I’m very gentle and you don’t even realize it’s happening.

Zibby: I’m not surprised about that either. When you’re writing, where do you like to write? We’re doing Skype. I’m looking at you in, I think, your office.

Amy: Yeah, you are in my office.

Zibby: Is that where you work? Do you like to go out to coffee shops? What’s your ritual?

Amy: My ritual for this particular book, for I Wanted Fries with That, was I wrote in bursts. I borrowed an apartment or I borrowed my dad’s country house, and I just went twenty-hours, write, sleep, write, sleep. Then I came home. That’s how I did it because my timeline was very, very tight for this book. I only had a few months, and I was working full time during the whole thing, plus the kids. The only way I could figure out to do it was in these really intense moments. In general, if I’m working on an essay or doing research, then I could write at my desk or in a coffee shop.

Zibby: Did you like the process? Now you’ve written two books. Do you want to do more? Are you like, this is what I love to do?

Amy: Oh, yeah. A hundred percent, I would love to do more. I’d love to write a narrative. I would like to do something a bit different, not necessarily a self-help or prescriptive nonfiction, but something with more of an arc.

Zibby: A narrative arc?

Amy: Yes. I am actually interested in the Holocaust. It’s funny that you brought that up. I know it’s a very popular topic right now, but that kind of theme piques my interest.

Zibby: Well, it’s so personal. I’m like, I can’t accept another historical fiction novel about the Holocaust. I have like fifty-seven.

Amy: That’s the problem.

Zibby: Then you never know because then one is really good. What is coming next for you now? What do you want to do next?

Amy: Right now, I’m still promoting Fries and loving doing that. I’m still talking about Fries a lot. I’m just, like I said, researching what my next thing is going to be. I’m going to be starting a new writing workshop this week. I’m a student. I’m going to be taking a writing class called Narrative Nonfiction. I’m hoping that with that and the themes and what I’ve been reading, somehow magically a project will emerge.

Zibby: If you say it will, it will. For the publicity for this book, did you do any tie-ins with any sort of fast food or fry places or anything like that?

Amy: That’s funny. I didn’t specifically, but wherever I went, people got fries. At a lot of the talks, people served fries or had fries on display, which was really cute.

Zibby: Are you now sick of fries?

Amy: No. Well, the point of the fries title was because when I was fourteen, we were allowed to leave campus for lunch. My friend Julie went and ordered fries at the counter. They never came. She said, “I ordered the fries, but I’m not sure if they heard me.” We’re all still friends. So for the past thirty-five years, we’ve all been using this expression to mean standing up for yourself. For me, the theme and the title were more about standing up for yourself than the actual French fries, if that makes sense.

Zibby: If there’s a girl out there, let’s just say as an example, who is really struggling with being able to get the words out and be assertive and stand up for what she wants, what advice would you have for her?

Amy: My advice would be you have to start even if it’s not perfect. You have a better chance of changing things if you open your mouth. If you don’t say anything, then nothing is ever going to change.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Amy: The advice that someone gave me was you just to have write. I didn’t think it was fair advice because if I knew how to write, then I would’ve probably been doing it. My advice for aspiring authors would be, if you’re interested in a lot of different projects and you’re not sure what to work on, just start brainstorming and making lists and write easy things. Lists are easy to write. How-was-your-day journaling are easy. Those are easy things to write. Just get in the habit of exercising those muscles so that when you’re ready to be an author, you’ll have the skills and you’ll learn your voice.

Zibby: Perfect. Thank you so much for sharing your advice and your great stories with everybody for “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks.

Amy: Thank you.