I just boarded a 6:45 am flight to Denver with my family. We were split up. Actually, Yan and Cade were put together. Ella and I were both assigned middle seats, across the aisle from each other in the same row. I guess that’s what I get for buying the budget economy ticket on United. 

It just never would have occurred to me that United would sit a 9-year-old child by herself. I knew we didn’t get guaranteed seats … I didn’t pay the extra $20 per ticket for the privilege of picking my own seats … and now I regret it. 

First, for me, traveling is all about the experience with my family. Even the airplane ride is an important part of that experience. Second, poor Ella, a child had to sit by herself between two strangers. And if that wasn’t enough to make me feel like I totally botched booking the flight, I then have to sit through the safety briefing (which should really be called the disaster seminar). 

I’m being told to secure my own oxygen mask first before assisting my child. United may not have noticed, but that little stretchy hose on the mask isn’t long enough to reach across the aisle. So, I am either unable to assist my child or I cannot remain in my seat to secure my own mask. No good choices you’ve left me, United, but I know which one I’m going to take. Yet I’m very uneasy at the thought of having to make such a choice and I’m rattled at the thought of jumping out of my seat, running across the aisle, and trying to get Ella’s oxygen mask on her in the midst of whatever emergency we find ourselves in, all while trying to hold my breath so I can take care of my daughter before I pass out from lack of oxygen. 

Then the flight attendant gets to the emergency exit part of the briefing which induces a vision of my little girl being trampled and me throwing elbows to try to get to her. But I’m quickly relieved of that imagery as the flight attendant pulls me into the terror that is the inflatable life vest. I’m not even sure I could follow the instructions on how to deploy  (and anything you have to “deploy” is inherently complicated, just saying) the darn thing. Ella’s in real trouble if she must do that for herself … or rely on me to do it for her for that matter. And do they expect me to rely on a stranger to do that for her in the event of a chaotic water landing? C’mon, United.

Ah, but then a moment of relief as I remember the whole thing is a big tease anyway (I saw “Fight Club”). Of course, from that point on I could only think of the plane going down without me even being able to hold my little girl’s hand or provide her any small comfort in our last moments.  And all this would confirm my ultimate failure as a father. Ugh!!

At any rate, that was the demented torture my mind put me through. Perhaps it’s just my innate morbidity as an estate planning attorney – always looking through the lens of “what could go wrong here” – but that was the path my brain took.  

United Airlines, this is not an open letter to call you out – though shame on you for forcing a young child to sit by herself, and for making her parent be apart from his child, and for the hypocrisy of your safety briefing when you separate a parent from his child, and for not making it clear you would separate a parent from his child if he did not pay the extra $20 per seat to choose those seats.

And shame on me for being a cheapskate and allowing my daughter and myself to be put in that position. BUT, there’s also a big business takeaway here for me. I have a large sign in our lobby titled “We believe”. It goes on to list a bunch of beliefs which are part of the culture of my firm, several of which are pertinent here–

“We believe cheap legal services are never a good substitute for value.” United, along with most of the rest of the airline industry, is on a race to the bottom: cutting services, competing to see who can be the cheapest, and losing sight of (or just not caring about) the customer experience. So, I had a negative experience on this flight, and I don’t feel like United particularly cares about me or my family. Substituting cheap service for value created a yucky experience and a negative association with that business. I never want my clients to feel that way.

“We believe nothing is more important than family.” We want our employees to know that. We want our clients to know that. We want to support both our clients and our employees in taking care of their families. We don’t want hypocritical policies or insensitive procedures.  We want everything we say and everything we do stand for and stand by family. 

“We believe being a parent is the most challenging, most rewarding thing in life.” I failed as a father, yet again (but luckily with no dire consequences- we just landed.). But I learned much this morning. Don’t trust every company to do what’s right (especially where your children are concerned). A good company makes it clear what they stand for and makes it a consistent message throughout their interactions with their customers.  Oh, and a dad has to forgive himself over and over again and sometimes thank his child for being brave when things don’t go as planned.

Thank you, Ella.

Thanksgiving, hands down, is my favorite holiday.  Ever since I was a little kid, it’s always centered on three of my favorite things: food, football, and family.  But this year Yan and I put a little twist on things which made it a unique Thanksgiving.  And though it deviated from the “traditional” Thanksgiving I love so much, it was simply my best Thanksgiving ever.

Earlier this year Yan said to me, “I found $400 roundtrip, direct flights to Madrid from LAX; the only catch is, we have to travel during Thanksgiving.” But that also meant Cade and Ella already had a week off from school and quite frankly, when Yan cooks up an adventure, I know it’s going to be awesome – it’s one of the many reasons I married her.  Add to that, what sounded like the deal of the century to visit a country none of had ever experienced before and it was a no-brainer.

So, the four of us flew to Madrid the week before Thanksgiving.  We spent three-and-a-half days walking and eating our way through that amazing city before catching a train to Seville to do the same thing there for another three days.  Then back to Madrid (with a day-trip to Toledo) for our final three days in Spain.  We easily walked 8-10 miles each day, stopped into an equal number of tapas bars each day, and spent every minute of each day being with, connecting with, and enjoying each other.

I learned that my daughter is a traveler in her soul.  Ella’s spirit of adventure and desire to chase experiences fit perfectly with Yan and me and made her a true joy to travel with.

I reconfirmed that my son is quite possibly the most culinarily adventurous kid in America.  There was no Spanish dish he wasn’t up for at least trying, if not devouring, critiquing, and comparing with the other similar dishes we’d tried earlier.  He has an amazing palate and an amazing openness to new gastronomic experiences.

And I rediscovered why my wife is my best friend. She is daring, adventurous, loving, supportive, resilient, and up-for-anything. I can’t imagine a better travel companion, in Europe or life.

So we did not eat Turkey on Thanksgiving, didn’t watch football (no soccer doesn’t count even though the Spaniards call it “football”), and we weren’t with extended family – all things that make me look forward to and relish the Thanksgiving holiday.  It was just us, eating various unfamiliar tapas dishes, talking and laughing and loving being in a new and fantastic country with one another.  I couldn’t have asked for anything more and I’m not sure I’ll ever top it.  But I do have a remarkable wife and kids who live for new adventures … so who knows?

I know why I like Thanksgiving so much – it’s an excuse to focus on what life is really all about anyway.

I hope your Thanksgiving was filled with love and laughter and connectedness to the people most important in your life, too.