Drama of the Delayed Flight

I have been absent from blog writing for a long time. I kept delaying from writing a post because I felt that I didn’t have anything to say and I had lost the will to write. I happened to read some notes that I wrote on Facebook and realized that writing isn’t about making a bestseller novel. It’s about pouring your heart into your piece. So to jump start a return to blogging, here’s a piece that I truly enjoyed writing.

Originally a Facebook Notes post dated October 3, 2009. 

After a 4-hour delay, I was finally strapped in my seat with 135 other passenger of the flight from Medan to Jakarta. It was already past 11 PM when the pilot revved the engines of the plane and brought it airborne into the night sky.

It was the worst – and the most dramatic – delay I’ve ever experienced. My wife had warned me of the disadvantage of taking the last flight out. “It will be delayed,” she said. But being the positive, happy go lucky person, I somehow believed that the airline had learned its lesson and would do its best to avoid delays. Boy, I don’t think I’ve ever been more wrong in my life before.

I received the text from my staff at the office informing of the ‘change of flight schedule’, from 7 PM to 9.40 PM. I was incensed. “They cannot do this! They must take responsibility! I have the right of having the airline arranged a better flight for me!” thus my ranting went on inside my head. Yes, the regulations require an airline to transfer a passenger to a better flight upon request, should a more than 90 minute delay is inevitable. But since it was a ‘change of schedule’, technically it was not a delay, and the airline managed to weasel itself out of its accountability through that loophole. Only a 25% refund was provided, and I had to pay full fare if I wanted to change to another airline.

I had no choice but to grumblingly accept to take the flight.

I arrived at the airport a few minutes before 6 PM. Although the check-in counter for ‘changed flight’ would not be open until 7 PM, the staff kindly led me to an open counter of a different flight to check in. Satisfied with the boarding pass in my hand, I headed to the executive lounge.

About 2,5 hours later, I was bored beyond relief. I hoped that I could browse on my HSDPA modem, enjoyed a free buffet, and relaxed, all the privileged of the executive lounge. I somehow had too much fried rice-fettuccine and pastries that within half an hour I was full. My internet connection was rottenly slow. With the PA system endlessly calling passengers to board, it was difficult to have a decent and relaxing rest.

At 9 PM, I left the executive lounge to join the other passengers in the waiting hall. I entertained myself on my smart phone, commenting on my friends’ posts on Facebook. At 9.20 PM, the appointed time of boarding, there was no call. At 9.40 PM, the departure time, still no call. I walked up to the gate and found a group of ground staff who were busy teasing one another. I asked something in the line of, “For heaven’s sake, please tell me when do we depart from this wretched place!”

The young woman turned to her friend, mumbled something, and turned to me with an uneasy demeanor. “I don’ t know how to tell you this, but we won’t be boarding until 10.45 PM, at the earliest.”

That would translate to 90 more minute of more delay. There was an unmistakable sinking feeling inside me, very close to despair.

“I hope you can understand,” she quickly added.

What else could I do but to muster a herculean effort of an understanding?

As I sat down, another passenger, a big, dark, bald and unshaved man replaced me at the counter. Unlike me, he was not in an understanding mood. He voiced his displeasure. He raised his tone. He ranted mercilessly to the helpless desk staff. A crowd began to gather around the scene. The man still went on and on, slashing at the staff’s lame attempts at making reasonable excuses. He kept going at it for about 15 minutes before he went back to his seat with an unsatisfied air.

I quickly updated my Facebook status.

On the background I could catch the man’s loud voice. I thought he was continuing his angry outburst. I looked over my shoulder and I saw him talking into his mobile phone. Then he turned to other travelers, telling them that they should trash the airline’s office to attract the attention of TV news crew, so everybody would know what the airline had done to its passengers.

What an angry, big, dark, bald man.

10.15 PM. A Boeing 737 taxied into the tarmac. It was our aircraft. I quickly swallowed the snack I got from the airline, picked up my heavy backpack, and sat at the front row, near the gate. After a few minutes, I left my seat and stood in front of the gate, determined to be the first to board the plane. Other passengers quickly formed a line behind me.

About 15 minutes later, the gate was opened, and I picked up my steps toward the plane. As I entered the door, I saw a young flight attendant standing, squeezing her eyelids several times to stay awake. I promptly gave her the nicest smile I could came up with under the circumstances. She smiled back at me and greeted me warmly.

After stowing my backpack securely in the overhead bin, I took my seat and looked around at the rest of the cabin crew. I saw pretty young faces, in uniforms designed to flaunt their beautiful forms. They swiftly went about their tasks of assisting passengers into their assigned seats and put away their cabin baggage. They did their best to maintain a professional posture despite of exhaustion.

I could not help thinking, “How can anybody be angry at them? They are doing the best they can at their job, and what happened is beyond their immediate influence.”

One hour into the flight, and after a box of snack and a cup of mineral water, everybody was content. Even the big, dark, bald man seemed to have forgotten about his anger, and talked to the stewardesses about (presumably) the airline merchandise they were selling.

How can anyone stay angry when seeing this excellent crew?

I honestly disliked the airline for failing to keep its promised schedule. But I must admit that they have a highly professional crew.

And here we come to the moral of this story.

Sometimes, things (or s**t, as some people say) just happened. There is nothing you can do about it. There is no point of worrying about it. You cannot keep it from happening, and you cannot stop it from completing itself. When s**t happens, focus on the task at hand. Nobody can stay angry at you when you do that.

And making sure that you look gorgeous while you are focusing on your tasks will considerably increase your chance of being successful in appeasing people’s anger.

Last Thought of The Year

In New Year’s Eve, we customarily go to Church for the year end service. Not this year. I am down with cold, and I could not bear the thought of having to fight new year’s eve traffic. So we stayed in our apartment and rested the night away.

We just moved in here, and for some reason we still have no TV. So I made myself a mixture of tea and herbal medicine, ate some bread, and sat on my beloved Poang chair. While I was listening to the Christmas music (yes, because that’s the only music we have in our still spartan apartment) played on my I pad, I thought about what we have experienced throughout the year. 

There were hits and misses, good times and bad times, and everything else in between. I browsed through my photo albums on Facebook, and I saw a lot of reasons to be thankful. Yes there were unpleasant things that happened, but there were also plenty of good things that happen to us.

For all the good things, I am grateful. For all not so good things, I am thankful. 

For the new year, I resolved to complain less. Life is full of so many good things, and I would be a waste to let myself be consumed with hate, irritation, and disappointment. I just want to enjoy each day at a time, taking good care of myself, drink the wine, and have the desser. 

I learned a lot from Stan Lee, the comic genius behind many of Marvel Comics characters. He’s 93, but he shows no signs of slowing down. He keeps churning out ideas after ideas, at the age where so many people would stop being productive. Throughout his career, he experienced successes, failures, one after another. When one enterprise he started went bankrupt, he simply started another one. No stopping. His life story is riddled with phrases like “Yes I can,” or “Why not?” or “It’s fun!”

In an interview, he said “Thinking up stories is easy. Thinking up the characters is easy. It’s finding a way to make it something that people have never seen before — that’s what’s difficult. It’s also what’s the most fun.” 

And so he keeps going.

That it would be difficult for me, an introvert, to see the positive, is something I realized early. But there’s nothing to lose. So, why not? I can do it, and it’s gonna be fun!

Matcha!

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Matcha Ice Cream at Asuka Japanese Restaurant

Once a friend of mine uploaded a curious picture to her Facebook timeline. It was green with folds and creases not unlike a brain. At first I thought my friend went to an intergalactic exotic eating place and was served an alien brain in a glass cup. Or maybe an alien cow brain. A closer inspection brought me to realize that it was a cup of matcha, or green tea, ice cream.

I never thought green tea could become an ice cream flavor. I already had some objections against unusual flavors such as black bean, or even durian. Green tea, as my reasoning went, was a drink that should be enjoyed in a liquid state, preferably hot. It was not supposed to be mixed with cream and milk and be frozen. No sir, that is just as strange as eating rice with fresh banana (yes I know some cultures find this to be appealing).

But I was wrong. Green tea, aside from being a drink, can be a flavor just like coffee. People do add coffee to food. Coffee ice cream, coffee biscuits, coffee bread, coffee cake, and the list goes on. So what is so strange about green tea in stuff other than, well, tea?

My first experience with matcha is very favorable. I like it! The green tea lends bitter taste to balance the sugar, and enhances the creaminess of the ice cream. I began to ask for matchas whenever I visited a Japanese restaurant.

The lesson here is not to limit the number of possibilities. With the right combination, you can come up with a great tasting ice cream, or highly effective team.

The Broken Award Trophy

The Friday night award dinner was over. It was time for dancing and fun. We wore Batik, long sleeved dress shirts in Batik patterns which in Indonesia enjoys the same status as a suit. We found it awkward to hit the floor in our Batik, so we decided to go to the mezzanine.

A lot of people were out there as well, to get away from the loud music and the dark room. Some friends came up to us to congratulate us for the Gold Cup award we received this year. In return we also congratulated other award winners that we met.

As we were chatting happily, our CEO Peter Handal emerged from one of the ballroom doors. Jolly and amiable as usual, he was soon surrounded by people who wanted to have their pictures taken with him. He was retiring from his position in Dale Carnegie. For people who came from far ends of the globe like us, this would be our last chance for a photo op with him.

I was holding the box containing the heavy crystal award in my hands. We were just getting ourselves ready for a picture with Peter. Suddenly I felt the box became a lot lighter. There was a loud crash and tinkling. When the surprise was over, all that remained of the trophy was just scattered crystal shards of various sizes.

It took me a few seconds to finally grasp what happened. I broke the award! That was the moment when I felt to be most stupid. How could I be so careless with something so valuable? The appreciation of one year’s hard work from our team, gone!

I was apologizing profusely, I said, “I’m very sorry,” over and over again. With his hand on my shoulder Peter said, “It’s not your fault, Stephen.” And then he lifted his face to everyone and said, “It was my fault. I tapped him on the shoulder and he reacted. I’ll have it replaced. I’m sorry.”

In the middle of the commotion, Dave Wright approached us. He is the President of Dale Carnegie of Austin, and his team won a Silver Cup award tht night. He stretched his neck out to survey the damage, and asked, “What’s that? You broke your award alredy? Is that a Gold or Silver? A Gold? You can use our Silver for your photo. They’re similar, right?” He graciously handed the crystal trophy to us, and the photo took place after all.

On Monday night, we were retiring to our room at the airport transit hotel in Incheon. I habitually took my phone and opened my email. I found one message from Peter. He said that he had arranged for a replacement trophy to be mailed to us, and that I should not let that incident affect me. It was his fault that he tapped me on my shoulder and startled me to drop the award. Before that, he shared, he dropped his watch on the bathroom floor and broke it. “You can say that this is Peter’s curse.”

I imagined that he had a big grin and a big twinkle in his eyes as he wrote that.

I spent a lot of time in our 20 hour trip from Atlanta to Seoul to revisit the incident. I was angry at myself for being such a bungling idiot. It was a simple logic to hold the box at a slanted angle to keep the award from toppling out. Somehow I stupidly held it upright.

After I was done criticizing myself, I began to think about the people that offered their help. About Peter who took the blame and offered to replace the award, even though I was so sure it was wholly my fault. About Dave who offered to loan his team’s award so we could somehow took a group picture with Peter. I have never seen so much kindness in the face of a mistake in my life.

I wrote back to Peter. “If there was a purpose behind this incident, it is so that we could see kindness from others. From you, from Dave. And if anyone ask me what I remember best about you, I would tell them about this incident to illustrate the kind, warm and friendly person you are.”

Instead of a misfortune, this has become a beautiful parting gift from Peter to me. I will never forget that day.

Thank you Peter for being a great leader for us. Have a wonderful journey ahead.

Who Moved My Aisle Seat?

Each time, almost without fail, I managed to secure myself an aisle seat in long haul flights. I made it a point to get the booking number as soon as possible and to pre select my seat way ahead before the travel began.

The reason is simple: I have a small bladder and in some cases I had to use the restroom almost once every hour. An aisle seat would save me the trouble of having to politely ask a stranger to allow me to cross his personal space just to relieve myself.

Most of the time I was able to get the seat myself. In some other time, I was lucky that I could ask for a seat change when I checked in. The rest of the time I just had to accept a middle seat.

Such is the case when I was preparing for this flight from Jakarta to Atlanta. I started to have a sinking feeling as I scrolled through the seating plan of the aircraft on the airline website. All aisle seats were not available. If it were a short flight, it wouldn’t bother me. I could survive being stuck between two strangers for two, three or even five hours. But it was a thirteen hour leg. Thirteen!

Arriving at the airport, I made some last attempts to request an aisle seat, but it was to no avail. So I braced myself for the worst.

And it was even worse.

Because of some mobile check in mishap, I was not allowed to check myself thru. I was not to get the boarding pass for my next leg until I checked in at the transfer desk in the transit airport.

During security check in transit in Incheon, they saw a suspicious item as they scanned my cabin luggage. They had to go through all my stuff twice, before they dig out a small pocket knife that I forgot to take out from my bag. The officer gave me a long what-were-you-thinking look before he turned his attention to the next passenger.

And for some not so strange reasons, they selected me for a random secondary physical security check. They went through my bag again, and they frisked me. They swabbed a piece of paper all over my bags, shoes, and outfit for explosive residue. As the result, I was among the last passengers boarding.

As I made my way down the aisle to my row, I saw someone else sat in my seat. I had to politely ask him to move. When I looked for an overhead bin space, all has been taken. I tried to rearrange one sparsely loaded bin to make space for my bag when the passenger sitting beneath it stopped me.”FAA regulations. The attendants put that bag horizontally because it doesn’t fit vertically,” she said. “Please put it back the way it was.”

I could feel the stare of the other passengers behind me. I was blocking their way while frantically looking for a vacant bin. I finally turned to a cabin attendant. “Could you help me find a space for my bag please?” She led me back to that same bin, pushed the content aside and said, “Do you want to see if your bag fits in here?” I pessimistically followed her suggestion, thinking that my bag was too big. But it fit!

I settled down in my middle seat, and tried to read a book. Because of snow, the ground crew had to de-ice the Boeing 777-300 ER, and it took a long time. It was already one hour past the departure time when we were finally airborne. The plane slowly climbed to its cruising altitude to avoid bad weather.

With every passing minute I could feel my bladder filling up to the point of bursting. I looked up the flight progress on the personal monitor in front of me and counted every altitude increase. I wished that the plane already reached 30,000 feet.

Suddenly there was a ‘ping’ on the PA, and the fasten seatbelt sign was off. It’s the sign from the pilot that it’s safe to move around the cabin. I quicky turned to my right hand neighbor and poked her awake. “Excuse me,” I said. I rushed past her to the aisle and walked down to the nearest lavatory.

In retrospect, it wasn’t such a bad experience. Revisiting the whole episode, I found some things I could be thankful for. I now understand that the reason I wasn’t allowed a check through was because I tried to do a mobile check in with a new passport when my US visa was on the old one. Unable to match the new passport number with its database, the system automatically rejected my check in and flagged me for inspection. That’s why I had to personally check in in transit.

The lady at the transfer desk was just arriving at her post when she took my case. She was late for work and was embarassed with her supervisor. And my case took some time to solve. She had to re-register my name, my passport and my visa in the system before she could produce my boarding pass. Yet she was all professional, and gave me a polite smile as she returned my documents.

The security officers who had to check my bag were not happy of having to go over my things. If possible, they would rather disregard their suspicion and let me pass. But they had the responsibility over the safety of hundreds of lives. They had to check. Twice.

And the secondary screening officers? I’m sure if they could choose, they would rather do something other than spending the morning running their hands all over strangers. Who knows the places these people have been to? Yet they did their job respectfully to the passengers. I was not at all feel humiliated for being chosen for a random check while other passengers watched as they rushed to board the plane. With halting English a young officer told me nicely that I had to undergo a secondary check. They patiently guided me through the process. They even smiled when they completed the check.

I learned a valuable lesson from this. You cannot really know what surprises life might throw at you. Sometimes what happens is not what you expected. The most important thing is what you get from that experience. And what you get reflects your attitude. When you react with negative thoughts, it will be a harrowing incident. On the other hand, you will get gold from dust with some patience, humility, positivity, and some bladder control.

The Upside of Being Under Limitations

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For the third time in 4 years, I go on a diet. My weight increased a lot in the past year due to change of lifestyle and stress. Okay, the last one is an excuse.

I go to the same diet clinic that helped me lost 45 pounds (about 20 kg). This time they gave me a slightly different treatment. They gave four different types of drugs instead of the usual one type, and they insisted on a different (in other words, more expensive) intravenous medication.

But on the eating side, the same limitations apply. Red meat in small amount only once a month, fish in moderate amount only twice a month, and chicken breast as much as needed. No processed food, no flour based anything, no fried food, no sugary drinks, and no alcohol. Fruit and vegetables are allowed, except for jackfruit, durian, and avocado. For breakfast, I can only have wheat bread and low fat cheese.

One consolation is that I can drink coffee as long as it’s not instant, and as long as I keep the sugar under 5 teaspoons a day. No problem.

At first, this seemed to be a burden. My wife has to prepare meals for lunch and dinner, which means she has to get up very early. I am very indebted to her in this, because otherwise it would’ve been difficult for me to stay on the program.

Having lunch with my co-workers becomes a challenge. They all either buy or bring tasty meals that when I wasn’t on diet I would’ve had myself. “This fried chicken is good, you know,” teased one of them. And I could only scowled and continued eating my no-dressing salad.

Another problem is when we go shopping. The mall is full with restaurants, cafes and bakeries, all are offering delicious treats. I often must remind myself that I am not allowed to have those for the time being. So much temptations.

On the bright side, having few options make things simpler. Unlike before, I don’t need to fuss about what I want for lunch, and I don’t have to go out to get it. I simply eat what I brought.

When shopping, choosing a place to eat takes less time. It must be Chinese, because that’s the only place where they serve boiled or steamed chicken. No need to decide between Japanese or Italian or Sundanese.

In the morning, I simply prepare myself a cheese toasted sandwich and coffee, and I have my breakfast home. No need to take time to get breakfast at the office. I can use the extra time for other things, like writing this post.

Having less options removes a lot of clutters and allows me to structure my life better.

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Small Actions, Big Impact

I spent most of my life achieving my goals serendipitiously. I dreamed of something, and somehow, in some way, it happened. It’s like somebody was getting things done for me from behind a screen. And sorry to disappoint some of you, I didn’t actually pray for them, either.

I’m not saying that praying is not necessary. If you believe in God, I would say you should pray. And neither am I saying that you don’t have to work for your dreams. Some dreams take sweat, blood and tears to make a reality. And I do work hard to build my family estate.

Looking back the nearly 39 years of my life, one thing that I am still dissatisfied with it is how haphazardly I lived it. How un-hardworking I was. How unfocused I had been.

I am worried this will carry into my professional life. I am in the position where I can make impact in the lives of tens, hundreds even thousands of people. What keeps me awake at night is the haunting question: how can I be a good leader for those people who entrust their lives and the lives of their families in my hands?

I found that being in a leadership position is far from having the justification to brag, to demand respect. On the contrary, it is the most humbling place in which anyone can be.

I choose to live one day at a time. I made mistakes. But those are in the past. Today I choose to be a better person. Everyday is a new opportunity for me to be slightly better, to be the person I dream myself to be. The doer, the achiever, the leader.

One day I was standing in a very long line in a bank. There were only two or three windows opened for dozens of customers. From where I stand, I saw the line was skewed way to the right. And nobody did anything to fix it. I decided to do an experiment. Every time the line inched forward, I moved slightly to the left. The customers behind me followed suit. And with every step forward, the line began to skew less, until finally it became a straight line.

To have impact on my surrroundings, I only need to change myself just a little bit, every day.