How Missing My International Flight Prevented A Larger Misadventure

Have you ever looked back on events on your life and thought, "Things happen for a reason"? I do. All the time in fact with a special instrument that I have. You have it too, but may not even know it.
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It should have gone smoothly. After spending a few vacation days with my family in Vancouver, I was to fly to London's Heathrow airport, have an overnight layover in a hotel, then fly to Greece in the morning for a speaking engagement in Crete the following day. The red eye flight to Heathrow was beautiful -- I popped my melatonin and pulled on my sleep mask. My next memory was hearing the sing-song British accent of the flight attendant, "Sir, we will be landing shortly" as she gently nudged me from my slumber. I was totally fresh from a solid night sleep when we arrived in the early afternoon London time. Life was very good at that point. My next flight was the following morning to Athens.

I arranged to meet a college rowing mate for dinner. He drove me to the town of Windsor to see the castle and have dinner there. There meaning the town, not the castle. I asked if we could pop into the castle for tea, but that was a no-go. After an uneventful night in a nearby airport hotel, I checked in myself and my bag. After going through airport security, I re-inspected the 6:50 a.m. boarding time in the black box on my boarding pass to Athens. I had plenty of time. I Skyped my wife, daughters, cousins, brother-in-law, and mother-in-law (that's most of the clan) back in Vancouver. I looked down at the time in the black box and realized it was time to go and signed off.

I arrived at the gate 5 minutes after the time in the black box. I noticed there were no passengers waiting around, just two gate agent at the desk. I thought that a bit odd. I was at the correct gate. Could the other passengers have been stuck in traffic, held up in security, or decided at the last minute to spend their time in rainy London instead of sunny Greece? The answer came soon and shocked me. The gate agent pointed out the gate closed at 6:50 a.m. I showed her my boarding pass, "It says boarding time is 6:50." She politely pointed out the print (which was tiny) in the black box which read "Gate closes". I thought, "You've got to be kidding me?" In the U.S. the time inside that black box is boarding time. This airline (a major carrier) decided to use the same black box layout as we have in the U.S. but spice things up by listing the cutoff mark to get on the flight. Even though I was 5 minutes over, they wouldn't allow me on the flight. I pleaded my case (in vain) that I was a speaking at a historic congress in Greece the next day. I got feigned sympathy. I don't think the gate agents would have changed their minds even had my grossly incontinent dog been on that plane under my seat. (I don't really have one, but you get the point).

I turned around to an empty gate area that was dwarfed by the vacuous feeling inside of me. I sensed my adrenaline being secreted as the stress of a possible disaster began to unfold. The gate agent directed me to the airline assistance desk. The agent was kind and looked for another flight that would get me to Crete before my talk at 1 p.m. the next day. It was a "mini red eye" leaving 10:15 p.m. that night which would arrive at 4 a.m. in Athens. The connector flight was 4 hours later from Athens to Crete and I would arrive in Crete around 8:50 a.m. +/- ("Greek time" is more a suggestion). I had 12 hours to kill in Heathrow airport. The prospects seemed high that I was destined to become one of those poor airport travelers you see sleeping in airport terminal chairs in contorted body positions -- positions so un-anatomic that its sight would strike fear into even the most double-jointed of Yogis. Luckily I discovered an airport hotel! A bought a day pass for the gym and spa. I worked out and slept for hours in the relaxation area. Turned out to be the best time I ever had waiting in an airport. I learned my lesson and got to gate eons before the gate closed. The remainder of that leg went as scheduled and I wound up at my hotel in Crete with enough time for an hour power nap (what makes it a "power nap" vs "nap" still puzzles me). I got to the conference and delivered my 30-minute talk and no one could tell the ordeal and the red eye flight I had been through.

After four days of the conference... hold on. I know what you're thinking, "Yeah Brian, 'conference' on a Greek island. Really!? Wasn't that fluff meeting just an excuse to get to frolic around Greece?" In fact it was a bona fide conference. Yes, really it was. But it was not just any real conference. The inventor of the LASIK procedure is Professor Ioannis Pallikaris of the University of Crete in Greece. He invented LASIK in 1991 and this Aegean cornea conference commemorated the 25 year anniversary of the LASIK procedure. Invited faculty came from all over the world to present the latest techniques in LASIK and other eye procedures. Each day had about 7 hours of intense scientific talks and discussions without even a break for lunch. It was intense and the most enriching conference I have attended in my career. I took pages and pages of notes of new information. That doesn't happen when I attend a conference. So, yes, while this conference was in Greece, it was in actuality a think tank of the best minds in the world sharing their techniques, results, and new ideas for the future. Since Dr. Pallikaris grew up in Crete, he treated us all to non-tourist restaurants with local cuisine including one late night with a band in a small town with Greek dancing in the streets that went on until sunrise (apparently very common in Greece). Fortunately there was the option of 'early' buses that brought us back to the hotel at 2 a.m.

On the morning of my flight departure from Crete (which would be at 6:25 p.m.) I didn't do my normal routine of checking in online a couple of hours before departure. Because of missing my flight in Heathrow I checked in about 8 a.m. only to find out my flight from Crete to Athens was gone. Simply gone. I called the airline and somehow that leg was cancelled. Worse, they couldn't do anything about it since it was operated by a regional airline which they do not connect to. The agent of the phone advised me to call my travel agent back home. It was midnight back in Los Angeles, so the travel agent fix was out. I called the local carrier and they also had no explanation for the reason it was cancelled. There was just one seat from left from Crete to Athens and it was in business class. I had no choice. I had to buy it to get to Athens since my next flight to Heathrow was a mere hour and 15 minutes later. "Business class" on some European carriers is not what you think. It's as misleading as buying a bottle of nice perfume only to later discover the fancy bottle was filled with lemony dishwater. Their business class consisted of being in the first few rows of coach, but no one sat in the middle seat. And you get a few upgraded snacks. Too cheap to buy the bigger seats, I guess.

I got to Athens and made my tight transfer to the flight from there to London's Heathrow airport largely because the plane was delayed in leaving Athens (Greek time!). I spent the night at the airport hotel and left plenty of time to get to the gate to board. The day was July 4th. Being the day of independence for our country, I wore a t-shirt emblazoned with a waving American flag. Many Americans hide their nationality when traveling abroad (me included), but on that day I was not going to conceal it. I proudly wore that shirt all the way home. I made it!

Have you ever looked back on events on your life and thought, "Things happen for a reason"? I do. All the time in fact with a special instrument that I have. You have it too, but may not even know it. It's called the "retrospectoscope" and it allows you see how something occurred in your life for a reason. Everyone can use their retrospectoscope if they take the time to think back and analyze. A mishap can fluster you. When an extreme unexpected event occurs to you (regardless of you playing a role in it or it being out of your control and you simply were caught in the flood) it can change the rest of your life. And you can be angry and pissed off because you didn't expect nor plan for that to ruin what otherwise had at the time been a smooth course. Hours, days, or years later with careful inspection the reason it occurred can become obvious -- you often can see that a bad experience had to occur that forced you to do something that in the end made you and others better off from it.

My missed flight from London to Athens is an example. The ordeal was stressful. It had to occur because it sensitized me doing things earlier than normal. Hence for my return flight from Crete to Athens I attempted to check in online significantly earlier than I usually would have done. That had to occur for me to discover my ticket was cancelled. Recall that in the morning there was merely one ticket left on that evening flight. Had my earlier travel from London to Athens been uneventful, I would have checked in in the late afternoon only to then discover my flight was cancelled and no seats would be available for purchase. I would have not been able to get to London to make my next flight from London to Los Angeles on July 4th. On July 5th I had a full morning of surgeries scheduled with patients from out of town. (Luckily I don't get jet lagged - thank you melatonin!). My retrospectoscope enabled me to see that I needed to miss that flight from Athens to London which in the end made me and my patients the better from it.

When I use my retrospectoscope to look farther back in my life, I see the same theme recurring in my career. I started as a fulltime faculty member at an academic institution in Los Angeles performing eye surgery, doing research, and teaching. I enjoyed it, but because I'm a creative problem-solver I found the conservative academic environment was slowly stifling my creativity and progress. I had a falling out with the department that led me to resign and start my private practice in Beverly Hills nearly 15 years ago. Since then I developed a number of procedures that have helped thousands of patients around the world with my hands and the hands of other eye surgeons. For example, I recently gave a TEDx talk about my emotional battle to legitimize one of my procedures despite attacks from venomous colleagues. Those inventions would not have occurred had I remained at that institution. My retrospectoscope enabled me to realize that resigning my position and starting a new practice from scratch, although stressful and not pleasant at that time, was necessary for the benefit of many people who are better off from it which is what being a doctor is all about, isn't it?

There are many well-known careers of people who experienced tumult before they blossomed. Chris Anderson's publishing business imploded in the tech bubble of the 1990s that eventually led him to taking the helm of TED which has become the premier platform for sharing "ideas worth spreading" and inspiring millions of people to accomplish incredible feats. When Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white bus passenger, she was distraught but it later inspired millions. Few knew that Walt Disney went bankrupt in his first animation company that forced him to team up with brother Roy which led to today's Disney. The retrospectoscope allows us to see things happen for a reason.

Regarding my marriage: I first met Selina when we were counselors at camp during college at age of 18. I knew she was "the one" after talking with her the first time. I experienced much frustration as she quickly found a boyfriend at camp which locked me out. Can you imagine the angst I felt when I knew she was going to be my wife, yet I was miles away from getting close to her? That anguish recurred again later in college when I had planned to visit her in Vancouver the following summer. We had a great talk on the phone and she even offered me to stay at her home. I was excited with endorphins that only marathoners get. Then my world cratered when she said, "I won't be in town when you'll be here since I'll be in Toronto with my boyfriend and his family." I called back with an excuse for my not being able to come to Vancouver. Finally, in the middle of medical school we reconnected and I flew from the East Coast for a visit since she had broken up with the boyfriend. We had an amazing time and, at last, starting dating. We have been married for 23 years and have twin daughters. Using my retrospectoscope, I understand that when I first met Selina, I was (like most boys that age) much less mature than girls the same age. I needed time to mature to be able to connect with Selina on her level. Had we gone out or hooked up earlier when I hoped to, I believe she would have written me off as a long term prospect. I had to go through the painful rejection to get to the right moment to ignite our enduring connection. I can see this with my retrospectoscope.

The retrospectoscope can help with events larger than one's life. The horrors of the 911 are beyond words. As a result of that tragedy, the Patriot Act was evoked and the U.S. can thwart well-coordinated terrorism on our soil. You have seen the odd news report of government officers raiding someone's home who planned to go on a shooting spree. Do you ever wonder, "How did law enforcement know what those criminals were going to do before they did it?" Now you know. There are near weekly occurrences of the U.S. foiling terrorist plots that you will never see on the news according to a friend of mine working "on the inside." Without 911, as terrible as it was, along with the retrospectoscope, national security agencies have their hands untied and can look domestically for communications aimed at another terrorist act in the U.S. While there will still be one or a pair of lone wolves who successfully strike a facility in the U.S., I don't think we will ever see a large scale event on U.S. soil again.

The retrospectoscope can help us understand that events occur for a reason absent the pain and suffering of the previous examples. Few recognize that without Ben Franklin the colonies would have not won the Revolutionary War. In the late 1770s, Ben was the biggest global rock star back then. If there were Twitter and Instagram, Kim Kardashian's 20 million followers would look like child's play compared to his probable 230 million followers (ok, I'm taking some liberties here with population adjustments for past 200+ years). Ben's invention of the lightning rod and harnessing electricity with his kite experiments among the countless other discoveries made him beloved by the world, especially the French people including King Louis XVI. John Adams was officially sent to convince the King to send French troops, weapons, and ships to help the Americans. Unfortunately, John and the King did not get on well due to John's personality. Ben Franklin went over with his charm and convinced the King to support the ragtag colonist who were getting pummeled by the superiorly armed English. That is the reason the colonists. Without Ben, today in the U.S. we might be driving on the other side of the road and be under the rule of Queen Elizabeth since the profitable U.S. territory would have likely enabled Great Britain to remain the empire that it once was. The retrospectoscope enables us to see that.

This scope also allows us to observe that it was King Louis's financing the American Revolutionary War that brought on the economic crisis in France. That directly led to the French Revolution and the formation of the Republic. The Republic has enabled a better life for millions more French citizens compared to life under the King. So the people of France should also be grateful to Ben Franklin. Without him, they might still be under the rule of a King. From my perspective that is true, but I'm not sure how the French people will embrace that version of the retrospectoscope. What someone sees through the retrospectoscope depends on who is looking through it.

The retrospectoscope cannot explain that all life events happened for a reason. Why did the Jewish Holocaust occur under Hitler that led to the deaths of millions of innocent people? Did the Armenian genocide 'happen for a reason'? Why does a young child drown in a swimming pool? I'm not sure if the scope holds up to cases of extreme suffering and death. Maybe someone else has explanation.

I do believe that many events in our own lives occur for the reason of improving ourselves and others. It's not always evident at the time, but if you pull out your own retrospectoscope you just might see what was really going on at a time. The best aspect of this scope is that you are never too old to start using it (unlike guitar in my case -- I'm resigned to having to settle for air guitaring during Karaoke). So now it's your turn. Now close your eyes, think back, and gaze into your retrospectoscope. You'll be amazed at what comes into focus.

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