PAT RAKOWSKI
COMMENTARY, SHORT STORIES, BOOKS

Recent Writings

Posted below is a commentary column I've recently written and a short story. I'll be changing these from time to time, so please check back again to see what's new.
Commentary: Can't Get No Satisfaction
 
     Remember the Rolling Stones song “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction?” If you do, chances are you understand what life was like before information technology took over. The title came to mind the other day when I bought my fourth, or fifth, or maybe even tenth computer. I’ve lost count, probably on purpose, because it’s always such a painful event.

    My last computer served me well, right up to the time it tried to update and couldn’t. I felt sorry for the poor thing as it struggled before telling me it wasn’t possible. Why? Despite two family members who work in the IT industry—and apparently very successfully—no one knows. In the end, my computer gave up. Fatal Error, it said. The bootable backup temporarily revived it, minus the Word and Excel programs, and then it just quit. Maybe it had something to do with Windows 7. I’d grown suspicious last summer when Microsoft offered to give me Windows 10 for free. But why should I change something that worked perfectly well?

    According to information on the internet, computers need to be replaced every three to four years. To add insult to injury, Adam Hadhazy wrote in a recent BBC article: “In various forms, from subtle to unsubtle, planned obsolescence still very much exists nowadays. From so-called contrived durability, where brittle parts give out, to having repairs cost more than replacement products, to aesthetic upgrades that frame older product versions as less stylish—goods makers have no shortage of ruses to keep opening customers’ wallets.”

     How depressing! It seems only fair that when I spend money, I should get something of value in return. I didn’t mind buying a new toaster because it had wider slots for bagels, but I resented paying for a new computer that does essentially the same thing as the old one. Who cares if it has additional memory, I didn’t use half of what I had before. I don’t want Cortana to talk to me, I don’t need a fancy Start menu, and I don’t need another way to access the internet.

    What did buying a new computer get me? Not satisfaction, that’s for sure. It was nothing more than a necessary evil, like replacing the interior parts of my toilet.
 
(Published in the Beaches Leader newspaper.)

Fiction: Twisted Labyrinth
 
    Wandering down yet another Parisian alleyway, Eleanor searched for a street sign. She’d lost track of the turns she made while she snapped one photo after another: small purple flowers dripping from a window box, wrought iron railings, an arched door, a pocket courtyard with a gnarled tree. Now, she couldn’t tell which way led back to the main street and which would take her further into the maze.

    Nothing looked familiar, and Eleanor thought of her mother, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and living in a Miami nursing home. Was this what she experienced when she became confused, unable to recognize her surroundings? They’d often been at odds—Eleanor’s assertiveness didn’t mix well with her mother’s passivity—and at first she hadn’t believed her mother’s tales, thought the stories exaggerated, a lonely widow’s bid for attention. Months went by before she took her to a doctor for evaluation. A pang of remorse nipped Eleanor, and she brushed it away. This was her retirement trip; after forty years of teaching, she intended to enjoy every minute.

     At the next intersection, a plaque attached to a stucco wall bore the words Rue Liancourt. Even though Eleanor had learned only a dozen or so French words, she knew “rue” meant “street.” She studied the local map she’d picked up at the hotel but couldn’t find a matching name. Maybe if Betsy, her friend and travel companion, had come along with her on this after-dinner jaunt she wouldn’t be in this predicament. Betsy had opted to rest, though, worn out by the sightseeing they’d done earlier.

     The residential area seemed deserted, although a few lights flickered behind curtained windows. She wished she had international cell phone service so she could call the hotel, but she’d ignored her daughter’s suggestion to sign up, just as her children had ignored her advice when they were younger. Parent-child role reversals accrue in miniscule increments, she’d noticed, multiplying exponentially over time.

    While Eleanor stood deliberating, a young couple, tattooed arms entwined, walked toward her.

    “Excuse me, can you help me?” she asked.

    They stared, shaking their heads, and the boy muttered something she couldn’t understand, the scent of beer wafting on his breath.

    She held out the map. “Do you speak English?”

    Again they shook their heads, ignoring her outstretched hand. She saw herself through their eyes: wind-tossed gray hair, sturdy walking shoes, of no interest to them. Feeling spurned, she watched their skinny denim-clad legs stride on, the long shadows reminding her that the sun would soon be setting.

    She wondered what her mother, sheltered most of her life and averse to speaking with strangers, would have done in similar circumstances. In her own worst-case scenario, Eleanor figured she’d sit on the curb, holding her ankle, and scream until somebody called the police. When they arrived, she’d decline medical attention and convince them to take her back to the hotel instead. Hoping to avoid such a desperate measure, she pressed the camera’s button to review the photographs she’d taken. Maybe she could use them, like breadcrumbs, to backtrack?

    At the far end of the block, a black car turned the corner, and Eleanor glimpsed a white sign on its roof. Taxi! In English! It crawled along the alleyway, two tires up on the sidewalk, tilted, a giant beetle. She ran toward it as fast as she could—a slow jog, really, her tired feet protesting. The car pulled to a stop, its engine idling while a woman in a business suit emerged from the rear door and strode toward one of the houses.

    Breathing heavily, Eleanor reached the driver’s window. “S'il vous plaît!” She pointed at her chest—“Lost”—and then the map—“Hotel St. Germain.”

    The man nodded, lips curved upward, the fine lines around his eyes crinkled in amusement. “Madam, I speak English.”

    Settling into the back seat, Eleanor decided to apologize to her mother when she got home, say she was sorry for not believing her, for not understanding how frightened she must have been. Yes, her mother would probably forget the entire speech five minutes later, but that wasn’t the point. Eleanor would feel better, and she would remember.

 
   
 (Published in the Florida Writers Association Magazine.)