Saturday, May 17, 2014

Piddling in the Wind

It's likely that the younger folks will read this and say, "What's the big deal, Old Man?" Then again, it's unlikely that the younger folks will read this at all. The older folks may split into two groups: 1) "Dang it all to heck, I feel your frustration, Don Ray," and 2) "Get over it, Don Ray. This is progress and you can't stop progress!"

This is about a dining experience with my family last night, and how I allowed my anger and angst over uncontrolled technology (and the corporate conspiracy to computerize its customers) get the best of me. I allowed it to ruin what might have been a decent meal --- and it led to a promise that I'd never set foot in that place again.

So help me gosh.

Our nearly 25-year-old son decided to treat Mother to a belated Mother's Day dinner at a Chili's Bar and Grill in Monrovia. I'll confess from the start that Chili's Bar and Grill is not a place that calls out to me --- especially on a Friday night. But this is between a son and his mother, so keep quiet, Don Ray!

No doubt, Xiao Mei and David enjoyed checking out the interesting people who also were waiting for that call that the table was ready. But me? I nudged my wife to point out the disgusting scene unfolding in front of us. A boy of about nine or ten sat with his grandmother in the waiting area. The disgusting part was that they were both absorbed, entranced and hypnotized by their individual smart phones. I grumbled as I thought about the wonderful memories the lad won't have of Grandma.

It was when we got to our table by a window (Xiao Mei likes to look out the window) that I saw the intruder gazing up at us from the tabletop. It was a computer screen, replete with colorful icons -- an icon for every customer's eye. I looked around and realized that every table sported a wireless terminal. What's worse is that someone at almost every table was interacting with the glaring intruder.

Of course, David's attention quickly jolted in the direction of the hypnotizing high-tech squatter on our table. But my reflexes were even faster than his glance. I grabbed the wireless billboard and placed it on the window sill -- facing outward. I placed it behind the giant "specials" menu so that it would block even the screen's reflection in the window.

The tabletop terminal, however, still maintained its dominance, blinding be damned. Xiao Mei joined David's protest. The computerized confederate became the topic of a dinnertime debate. But I wouldn't budge. As I was delivering a well-thought-out declaration that this would be a technology-free, family meal, David and Xiao Mei burst out in laughter and pointed out the window. Right up against the glass, two young faces were delightedly ogling the content of the outwardly facing monitor. Their parents were sitting on an outdoor bench awaiting their table. They, of course, were oblivious to the whereabouts of their kids, who had walked through the bushes to get to the magic screen. The parents, you see, were head-down in their own electronic devices.

Much of the dinner discussion revolved around my bullheaded boycott. When I asked the robotic waitress for the check, she proudly told us that we could use the little computer screen to pay the bill. I asked if we could opt for an actual bill, but my wife and son protested.

"I think it will be fun to pay at the table," Xiao Mei said. David agreed. He swiped his two gift cards through the slot on the side of the terminal. It quickly spit out a long, ad-cluttered receipt.

"It says we're eight dollars short," David said. Now I willingly put my debit card through the slot. The waitress came around behind me to help. I had to turn the screen around so she couldn't see it.

"Either you do it or I will do it," I said. "Not both of us. I can't focus on both you and the computer." She got the message. The computer screen then pissed me off even more. It suggested the tip amount. I grumbled that I didn't like that amount. The waitress said, "You can move that slide to the left or right to change the percentage."

When she finally walked away, I figured out how to move the tip to a higher range (it wasn't the server's fault, you see) and then finally rid myself of that horrible terminal. But it didn't end there. The computer now wanted us to rate the experience.

Long story short, I rated the overall experience a zero on a scale of one to ten. I rated it a zero on the questions of "Will you recommend Chili's to your friends?" and "Will you come back again?" Then I gave individual high mark to the food and the service. Finally, the computer displayed a fake keyboard and asked me why I hated them so much. I cursed as I tried to find the symbols that would replace the letters "u" and "c" and "k" -- no need to be too graphic.

When we left the restaurant, we had a really nice time. David asked me about some big stories I had worked on, and how I had fought for the truth -- even though it had cost me my job.

It would have been great to do more family talk at the dinner table.

I'm obsolete and I know it.