LSS: Locating a fellow traveler

Sometimes, complicated things come together with little doing of our own and present a surprising moment of magic.

There are several separate pieces to this story.

No. 1: My great-uncle was a foreign missionary. His family traveled to and lived in places the rest of us read about or saw in books and magazines. When I was a little girl, every four years or so, my uncle Guy and his family would come home to Mississippi on furlough, and our whole extended mega-family would stop everything and go to my great-grandmother’s house for days.

By that time, my uncle’s many brothers and sisters had families of their own — so, we’re talking about a significant crowd of folks getting together, telling stories, listening to stories and just hanging out. I will always be grateful to have been a part of a family that valued coming together, with no real plans other than to be there for each other.

Without any doubt, his family’s travels and tales of foreign places planted the seeds of travel in my own future.

No. 2: Shortly after I met the man who would eventually become my husband, I started trying to figure out his family’s story, which was a tale with a lot more twists and turns than anyone else’s I knew.

Back in the mid-1800s, my husband’s father’s family came to Mexico from different places in Europe. His great-grandfather’s family was from France. His great-grandmother’s family was from Prague. Through the years, his cousins have filled in many of other details. Along the way, I’ve gathered that one of his ancient relatives was a botanist of some renown. In fact, in Prague, there was a statue of this man, whose name was Benedikt Roezl.

No. 3: Two weeks ago I found out I would be traveling to Prague for work. I hadn’t been to Prague since 1993, the year I lived in Slovakia teaching English. Back then, friends and I made several trips to the city. It was, then, so full of unfolding beauty. Even back in 1993, though my husband and I weren’t married yet, I knew about Benedikt Roezl and his supposed statue. I spent some time looking for it — with what turned out to be the wrong spelling of his last name, I got nowhere. Still, when friends and I were in small parks around the city, I always kept my eyes peeled.

This week, armed with more information, including the right spelling of my husband’s great uncle’s name and a general idea of where the statue should be.

Shortly after I got here, my uncle Guy’s oldest daughter — also a foreign missionary whom I hadn’t seen in more than two decades — sent me a message saying that she and her husband live in Prague and I should come visit with them. My work colleagues and I had a busy week planned. I wasn’t sure a visit would work out, but on Thursday night, I was pleased to find myself at her dinner table in great conversation with her and her husband.

I told them the story of my husband’s long lost uncle and where I believed the statue to be. My cousin, Melinda Kyzar, said, “That park isn’t far from here at all. We should go after dinner.”

Even though I had seen pictures of it, there was a real possibility that this statue, which had been erected more than a hundred years ago, would not be there. After dinner, the three of us took a tram toward the park. Once there, we had to make a decision to go left or right. It was a sizable park. Melinda’s husband said, “I have a feeling that it’s this way.”

I agreed, and we started walking along a large path that twisted and turned, much like this story.

As we made our way around a curve, we saw a huge statue at the end of the park. I was amazed. This was a monumental (literally) monument.

And sure enough, it was Benedikt Roezl. Under his statue, along with his name and the dates of his birth and death was an inscription, along with two words to describe him. The first one, I could make out. It was the Czech word for “botanist.” But I couldn’t figure out the second one. It was, “Cestovateli.”

My cousin’s husband, Russell, said, “That word means traveler.”

And with that, I smiled, and felt a certain kinship with old fellow.

Email Jan at

LSS: The fine line between luxury and convenience

Sometimes we go to so much effort to improve our lives and conditions that we inadvertently cause quite the opposite effect.
The examples are limitless — from containers to exercise to enjoying a meal.
For example, a year ago, the theater program my daughters participate in asked each thespian to bring all of their theatrical supplies in a well-labeled box for practices and performances. We bought beautiful decorative plastic boxes with lids. This week my daughters informed me that their plastic boxes were completely broken and unusable and they needed new ones. Two thoughts came to mind. The first didn’t require deep thinking but demonstrates the difference in my daughters’ generation’s thinking and my own — shoeboxes. Who ever heard of buying boxes before the 1990s? The second is more indicative of my grandmother’s generation, but it deserves to make a comeback — baskets. My house is home to plenty of hard-core woven baskets — the things are practically indestructible.
Why did we stop using baskets?
They’re completely serviceable. They aren’t expensive to make. They aren’t bad for the environment. If you ask me, a strong basket is a much better way to carry a load than many alternatives. And, a good basket lasts for decades, centuries even.
Moving on.
This week, a young friend of mine reminded me of the exercise equivalent. He was discussing the new martial arts class he was taking.
“You know, there’s a purpose to it,” he said. “Yes, I’m getting great exercise — probably the best I’ve ever gotten, but I’m actually learning something useful too. I’m learning self-defense. For some reason, that makes it work better in my mind. I’ve never been good at going to a gym and pumping iron because I grew up on a farm. If you need to get some exercise on a farm, you just go out and work. It makes more sense to me that way.”
Basically, he was stating one of the conundrums of the last century — we’ve created lives filled with such comfort and plenty that we’re challenging our very existence with a lack of exercise.
And finally, the hoops we sometimes jump through for the privilege of enjoying a meal out often require more energy than staying at home and cooking a meal ourselves. If we’re feeding a crowd, whatever happened to doing a potluck? We’ve allowed ourselves to become programmed to believing that meeting at a restaurant is just the way we do things — rather than reflecting on what might be easier in the big picture. Let me be clear, I have nothing against going on to eat every now and then, but we’re missing out on some great shared moments — whether we’re with our families or friends — of leisurely sitting around the family table and settling in to the point of “loosening our tongues,” as one of my daughter’s teachers once said.
Additionally, a few more meals at home offer the added benefit of teaching our children how to cook and clean the kitchen. Believe me, some families are missing out on both sides of that equation. (I know that’s difficult to fathom if you’re the type who cooks and eats at home on a regular basis, but, trust me, I know this to be true.) Yes, cooking and cleaning are skills our children can learn somewhere else — or on their own, if they really need to, but there’s something special in passing certain traditions from one generation to the next. And, in the spirit of the point of this column, cooking at home genuinely can be simpler and less complicated than going out to eat. Food doesn’t have to be fancy to taste good.
Neither do exercise or baskets.
Fancy is fine, but fancy all the time isn’t fancy anymore.

Jan Risher’s column appears on Sundays. E-mail her at

Happy Mother’s Day, Bill Gates

At some point, long ago (and before I became a mother), I read an article about the new house Bill Gates and his wife were building in Washington state.

I have little memory of where or when I read the piece, but there was one detail that has always stuck with me.

The story explained that each room in the house had some sort of special sensor that could tell which family member was in the room. Each person in the family and visiting was able to select temperature and lighting preferences. Guests were given special sensors to wear too. As I remember, if more than one person was in the room, there was a pre-set and programmed hierarchy that decided how the thermostat and lighting would be set.

Bill Gates was on the top of the hierarchy.

Oh, to be Bill Gates.

That story got stuck somewhere in the back of my head.

I’ve been a mother now for almost 15 years. In the last few months, the story of Bill Gates and the temperature and lighting of his home has made its way back to the surface of my brain.

To be frank, Taylor Swift forced the issue.

As you may have noticed, there are a lot of gadgets in this world that are supposed to bring simplicity and beauty into our lives. We all know and bemoan the fact that sometimes our techno-creature comforts have the exact opposite effect.

The music playing in the car I’m driving would be an example of electronic widgets and doodads of convenience bringing multiple complications and controversy into my life.

Here what would happen before my Bill Gates epiphany: My daughters and I would get into the car. Within nano-seconds, daughter no. 1 would have four wires attached between various sources and Taylor Swift would be singing her heart out for one and all to hear.

Daughter no. 2 would object to whatever Taylor Swift song was playing and an argument would erupt. This exact scene has progressed for months.

One day when I just couldn’t take the bickering anymore, I quieted the natives safely buckled in my car. I unplugged all musical apparati and began to tell them the story of Bill Gates and the temperature in his home.

They looked at me with blank stares and no response.

“I am Bill Gates,” I said. “From this day forward when I am in the room, I will control the sound. I am Bill Gates and never forget it.”

With Bill Gates’ help, however, I have brought peace and tranquility into what had become a rather tricky situation.

It’s not quite a 66,000 square-foot lakeside palatial estate overlooking Seattle, suited to my exact and every specification, but it’s a step in the right direction.

I get to listen to the music I want to listen to when I want to little to it, and a little James Taylor never hurt anybody. Yes, being Bill Gates is a beautiful thing.

Not only do I get to listen to the music I want, my newfound tactic settles all arguments and disagreements.

“But, Mom, why can’t I XXXXXXX (fill in the blank)?”

And the answer is simple, “Because I am Bill Gates.”

LSS: Value loses its meaning

I walked past the display and stopped. Taking in the item and its price took some time and effort.

How could they be selling a canopy tent (10×10) for $29.99? Surely, that was a mistake.

So, I took a closer look.

There it was — a full canopy tent for sale for $29.99. I thought, “I can’t pass this up.”

So I bought it.

Our family doesn’t have a lot of use for canopy tents, but when Mardi Gras rolled around and we were going to meet friends for a day of picnicking, parading and partying, I was happy to tell our group that I’d bring the canopy tent.

I’ll readily admit putting it up was easy. That afternoon, a light shower rolled in just as we were packing to go home. Two friends and I began to take the canopy tent down. First, one pole broke. Yes, a metal pole literally broke. Then the tent began to disconnect from the remaining poles. Then one of the hinges went the wrong way and came undone. There was nothing to do but throw the whole thing away.

What should I have expected for $29.99?

But that’s a problem. A throwaway society, just like that canopy tent, cannot stand for long — and certainly won’t weather a storm.

Several friends are fed up and quick to supply examples of our throwaway society.

One of my friends says her experience trying to purchase a quality badminton set brought her level of frustration with poor-quality products to a head. She said there were three badminton sets at her local sporting goods store (in Texas). All three were made in China. All three had plastic stakes and poles. She bought the middle priced set for $70.

“We played with it once and two stakes and one pole bent and broke,” she wrote to me. “I returned it and decided to do more research on badminton sets.”

According to her research, she simply couldn’t find a quality badminton set.

“I was really surprised to read reviews on how people have resolved to buy a new set each year since the sets don’t last,” she wrote. “What happened to buying a product that will last you several summers? We have become a disposable society where the norm has been if it breaks just go buy a new one.”

And clothes? The changes in the ways clothes are made and constructed are shocking.

Whether the item is made in China or some place else is not the issue, but the issue is complex. Our consumer society responds to cheap prices and the market delivers at whatever cost necessary. The easiest way to get there is in decreasing the quality of the parts and final product. The best way to get there is through innovation. Sadly for our lives (and our landfills), we get more of the former and less of the latter.

Stacy Mitchell in an article in wrote, “Cheapness — and the decline in durability that has accompanied it — has triggered an astonishing increase in the amount of clothing we buy. In the mid-1990s, the average American bought 28 items of clothing a year. Today, we buy 59 items. We also throw away an average of 83 pounds of textiles per person, mostly discarded apparel, each year. That’s four times as much as we did in 1980, according to an EPA analysis of municipal waste streams.”

So, what are those of us ready for the cheap, poorly made trend to slow and start heading in the other direction to do? Even my greenest, most earth-conscious friends admit that they too are complicit and participate, to some degree, in our throw away society. After all, how many of us are complaining about the 42″ flat screen plasma television we bought for $309?

There is no simple solution. I do know that changing the way we make thoughtless purchases is a part of the key. Think before buying something. Is it something you need for now or is it something you need for long-term? If you only need it for now, do you really need it? Could you borrow it? Do you know other methods to be smarter consumers who don’t contribute to our throwaway society? I’m open to your ideas and suggestions.