Fictional Text Analytics

There’s a great moment in John Scalzi’s Redshirts where statistical analysis is mentioned, and it comes down to comparing texts:


“So what you’re saying is all this is impossible,” Dahl said.

Jenkins shook his head. “Nothing’s impossible,” he said. “But some things are pretty damned unlikely. This is one of them.”

“How unlikely?” Dahl asked.

“In all my research there’s only one spaceship I’ve found that has even remotely the same sort of statistical patterns for away missions,” Jenkins said. He rummaged through the graphic elements again, and then threw one onto the screen. They all stared at it.

Duvall frowned. “I don’t recognize this ship,” she said. “And I thought I knew every type of ship we had. Is this a Dub U ship?”

“Not exactly,” Jenkins said. “It’s from the United Federation of Planets.”
Duvall blinked and focused her attention back at Jenkins. “Who are they?” she asked.

“They don’t exist,” Jenkins said, and pointed back at the ship. “And neither does this. This is the starship Enterprise. It’s fictional. It was on a science fictional drama series. And so are we.”


On Publishing Conflicts

The thirty-fourth day of #stayathome was spent mostly focused on copyright issues surrounding a successfully defended dissertation. The good news is that the dissertation was not only an academic success but was already under contract with a university press. The bad news was that the university press used a terrible boilerplate contract and the dissertation had received incorrect information from university personnel. (This happened prior to me coming on board as chair of the dissertation.)

This has resulted in something of an impasse: the press claims complete copyright for the manuscript and the university requires that the manuscript be submitted to ProQuest. Now the rules of ProQuest are that copyright remain with the author, but ProQuest still offers the option of buying a copy of the submitted manuscript, so they are in fact able to make copies. A ten-year embargo is possible, but it’s not clear if the university press is likely to budge. The university uses ProQuest because as a public university it feels that knowledge created here should be publicly available. The mandate comes down to a sentence in one document and a sentence in another.

The big picture is easy: the university’s mandate is to make public the knowledge it produces. In being published as a book, the dissertation accomplishes that and more: it will be more widely available, and at a cheaper price, than it would in ProQuest. The publisher’s mandate is to maximize the profitability of publishing this book. This can be accomplished by the ProQuest embargo — surely, the principal profit in the book will be in its first ten years!

The takeaways are many:

  1. For dissertators: read all the fine print at your institution. Do not depend on anyone’s advice unless they are, one, in a position to give it, and, two, they give it to you in writing.
  2. For all dissertations, and really all academic authors: read the contract. (More on this below.)
  3. For university presses: revise your contracts to be human.

In addition to the inflexible guidelines maintained by the university, there is the inflexibility of the contract. The particular press here is not alone. I’ve seen similar language in other contracts, and, indeed, when the press that published The Amazing Crawfish Boat first sent me a contract, it looked like this. Here’s the thing: I revised the contract, sent it back, and they were fine with the revisions. Here are the revisions I would suggest:

  • Copyright: Depending upon the severity of the contract, most presses want the copyright to your book. Some will recognize that there’s a span of time, but many will not or they will use the fuzziest of notions: that they maintain copyright “so long as the book remains in print.” Here’s the thing: in the digital era, books remain in print forever. The cost of maintaining an ebook approaches zero, and with print-on-demand, a publisher need not keep inventory of a book. I recommend you strike this out and change this to a flat “ten years or when the book goes out of print, whichever comes first.”
  • Derivative Works: Publishers like to act like they are going to do all kinds of things, but they aren’t. They are going to publish the book. Unless they have committed to publishing an audiobook version, then you should maintain that right. Also, if you plan to publish follow-on work or companion works, which should actually help to drive sales of the original, be sure to maintain that right. (The changes in wording here will depend on the contract.)
  • Subsidiary Rights: I think it’s fair to allow a publisher to keep whatever percentage, usually it’s half (50%), of the proceeds of subsequent print versions of the book, but I would cross out the clause involving other adaptations (video, audio, whatever). Also, the clause that says something like “we get half of net proceeds from anything not specifically set out in this paragraph”? Cross that out, too.

As you can probably tell, much of this language is drawn from industry presses and university presses have simply adopted it whole cloth because, in being oppressive, it works entirely in their favor. In my experience, having a conversation is pretty easy: common sense works here. Too many academic authors, especially first-time authors, are so excited about their book getting published or so worried that should they ask a question or request a change in the contract that the publisher is going to suddenly change their mind about publishing the book. No sensible press would: they have invested time and energy in lining up the manuscript for their press. They are not going to suddenly throw up their hands and yell: “That’s it! We’re out!” They are simply going to say “No.”

What you rights you are comfortable giving to them and for how long and with how much of the possible revenue … well, that’s ultimately a decision you alone can make. All I am suggesting is that you think about it, at least some, before signing your name.

On Teaching Online (So Far)

Today marks the 33rd day of quarantine, or, rather, a state-wide policy of staying at home. Others elsewhere living under other circumstances will count a different number of days. I count 33 days since Friday, March 13, when the university where I work announced that classes were cancelled for the following Monday and Tuesday and that when Wednesday dawned, all classes would be online.

I was somewhat luckier than most. I had begun to have conversations with my students that week about what it would mean if we had to go online, and so we had made plans together, which helped, I think, the eventual deployment. I remember quite clearly working through some of the finer points of how we would conduct ourselves in my eleven o’clock class when, as class was finishing one of my students looked at his phone and announced, “Oh, it’s official. We’re going online.” (Of course, my university announced it first on Twitter, and then about an hour later sent an email to faculty.)

So, it’s been a month — well, three and a half weeks really — and I have learned a lot about teaching online, appreciating that how you gauge comprehension is a fundamental shift between the two environments. In face-to-face lectures and discussions, you have an entire range of facial expressions, gestures, and postures that reveal to you the scope and depth of someone’s understanding of the material being examined. A slight eyebrow furrow can lead you to re-state a proposition with a different set of words that raises not only that person’s eyebrows but a host of others. A different person’s posture reveals they are having a bad day or, perhaps, they haven’t prepared for class, prompting you to think about ways to re-engage them, give them reason to seize the next opportunity to examine the material for themselves, looping them back into the next discussion. All of this changes online, and the number of solutions that some learning management systems offer to assess student learning now begins to make sense — though, I confess, I continue to think that any number of them are rather unimaginative and, honestly, somewhat trivializing of any content which must pass through them.

A couple of other things tumble out of my experience of online teaching so far, the first of which is time management, which I glimpse not only through the lens of my screen but also through watching my own high-school aged child adapt to the change in circumstances. While my daughter spends hours in front of the computer, I am not entirely sure that it is an effective use of her time. That is, I think she confuses time spent staring at the screen with time spent working. I don’t think I am being unfair here, because I can be equally guilty of allowing myself the “quick break” to watch a YouTube video, sometimes educational like something from 3 Blue and 1 Brown or StatQuest but also just as likely, if I am being honest, to be the highlights from a Premier League game or a woodworking video (that I justify as avocational advancement). What my daughter lacks and what my students lack, and perhaps even I lack, is the regimentation of the varied workday. My daughter is quite clear about it: she was quite used to her day being broken up into chunks, each of which allowed her to focus quite clearly on the task in front of her, confident that there would be a change of class, a change of topic, and, perhaps, a change of pace. This kind of clear set of steps accompanied by variation is one way to be productive. As an adult I use it quite often. Indeed, I am entirely reliant now on being good at scheduling my day in a way that gives me the opportunity to focus intensely on a particular task, but often that focus is driven by the fact that it is bounded and I know that I can push because coming up at two o’clock, for example, I am going to break for coffee and a stroll into the garden (or what we would like to be a garden at some point in its stunted existence).

Finally, there is the matter of writing. No matter what I teach, I think the one thing that I can contribute to my student’s own personal and intellectual development is the ability to write well: to develop ideas, to base those ideas on clearly-defined inputs, and then to communicate those ideas, analytical or argumentative, well. If anything should be conducive to writing it’s the online environment. After all, at its base, the internet is simply bits being sent from one computer to another, mostly in the forms of words (or things like words like HTML tags). Or, put another way, much of our electronic communication, especially among my students, is based on some form of texting — the particular application/platform within which they text is less important than the fact that they exchange words so readily.

So you would think that shifting to all-online teaching would be a boon to the teaching of writing, but so many people are so anxious about writing that you actually spend considerable amount of time as an instructor giving them confidence, and that often comes in the form of one-on-one sessions before and after class, in the hallway, or in your office. I now spend a considerable amount of time inside Teams doing much the same, but it is far more difficult and takes far more time. (And, to be honest, this kind of effort is not rewarded institutionally: we have so devalued the teaching of writing that it’s really a wonder it gets taught at all.)

Synesthesia

I don’t remember where I encountered it now, Reddit or some other social media platform, but there was a post that took you to a webpage that claimed to generate your name as a barcode of colors as those letters would appear to individuals with synesthesia. But I want to know: are such color associations universal? Or are they more individualized?

Laudun as a Synesthetic Color Bar

Laudun as a Synesthetic Color Bar

At some point I may explore the matter more, in the mean time, here is my last name in blocks of color, which I may use in further revisions of this website: I rather like the brown and green combination. (Given that I only use color to offset links, I don’t quite know how I would implement that: regular text in brown and links in green? There’s not enough contrast between the brown and navy blue and black to be used, and red … no.)

Website Updates

It was time to fold the experimental portfolio site into this main site and to re-direct the URL, jl.net, here. Not so much “one ring to rule them all” as “too many things in too many places.” (And, to be clear, this has been going on behind the scenes as well in my private reading, note-taking, and writing applications. I will, perhaps, write about that at some point.)

Most of the materials have come across and either created new pages, focused on outlining my teaching philosophy or my attempts to work towards diversity, revised extant pages, or replaced extant pages entirely. The last is the fate of the research page as it once was, and I am pasting below its discontents:


I like to make things. I make a lot of things with words, and those things get called essays or books, but I’ve also used words to make things like grants, CDs, television programs, databases, and code. (Words words words.) Here are a few things I’ve made (a complete list of such things can be found on my vita):

The Makers of Things

The Amazing Crawfish Boat is my book on how a bunch of Cajun and German farmers and fabricators invented a traditional amphibious boat. It’s the first book-length ethnographic study of material folk culture in Louisiana — really, the first ethnography in Louisiana studies since Post’s Sketches.

An Olinger Boat

An Olinger Boat

The idea for the book came in the wake of the 2005 hurricanes, when a national debate erupted about the nature of land (in Louisiana) and what it meant to re-build an American city (New Orleans). A lot of land got dismissed as “wetlands”, which, it seemed in the view of most pundits, was really not land at all. I thought it would be interesting to investigate how people in Louisiana actually imagined the landscape on which they live and work, and what I found was an amazing series of adaptations and innovations, the most iconic of which is the crawfish boat. There’s more information on the book and the project behind it.

The Shape of Small Stories

My more recent work has focused on Why Stories Matter, where I explore the shape of stories both as a form as well as an experience. From local legends about treasure to contemporary legends about Slender Man, I’m interested in how stories shape our experience of the world and how we shape the world through stories. I ground my explorations not only in my home field of folklore studies but also in contemporary work in cognitive and computational models of narrative. A lot of the work you see on the Logbook that has to do with textual analysis/text mining using Python is part of this work.

The Way Louisiana Treasure Legends Work

The Way Louisiana Treasure Legends Work

Text Analytics

As I have explored the shape of stories and as I have begun to develop an understanding of ways to describe and/or analyze narrative computationally, I have begun to develop a small collection of scripts in Python that, for now, is simply known as Useful Python Scripts for Texts that is available on GitHub. Given interest in it, and my own commitment to developing a computational folkloristic that will pair well with other folklorists, like Tim Tangherlini, working in this area, I have begun to draft a larger text that describes what work can be done.

Louisiana Studies & Digital Humanities

I have done a lot of work in Louisiana studies, both in terms of producing original research but also in trying to find more ways to engage the diverse audiences interested in folk culture:

  • In 2003 or so, I joined the faculty and staff at the Center for Louisiana Studies. The state of the Archives of Cajun and Creole Folklore and the dream of leaping forward a technology or two provided me with the reason to write a grant to the Grammy Foundation. With those funds we made the best possible digital copy of taped recordings, and, then we used those digital copies to open up the Archives to a variety of interested individuals with a variety of purposes. We ended up with some pretty amazing results, as you can hear for yourself in the first two CDs released under the Louisiana Folk Masters brand: Varise Conner and Women’s Home Music.
The first Louisiana Folk Masters CD

The first Louisiana Folk Masters CD

  • The idea for Louisiana Folk Masters was born out of a desire to make the folk culture — real folk culture and not the stuff too often served up in the popular media — more accessible. I dreamed up a series of products that would have as their basis the materials either already in the Archives of Cajun and Creole Folklore or that materials that were being generated with the Archives in mind. The CDs were just the first step. Television was next. As luck would have it, Louisiana Public Broadcasting was interested in expanding its approach to the genre of “human interest” stories. I worked with LPB on two profiles: one on Creole filé maker John Colson and another on Cajun Mardi Gras mask maker Lou Trahan. (Clickable links to the videos coming soon.)

I’ve also written grants for a number of other projects — mostly because I like to see what happens when you come up with something new and fun: what can others do with it?

  • Humanities Research and the Tourism Commission. While I was still involved heavily with the Center for Cultural and Eco-Tourism, the good folks from Acadia Parish came to the Center and asked for help brain-storming possible ways to improve their tourism infrastructure. We eventually proposed Rich the First Time, a media archive and database that would consist of high-quality inputs gathered by folklorists (mostly our students) that would be available for a variety of outputs.

  • In 2007 or so, the director of the Humanities Resources Center, the dean of the College of Liberal Arts, and I began a conversation about what it would take to support faculty and students in their research and publishing in the new era of cyberinfrastructures. We decided we needed a room full of equipment that could do anything someone was willing to dream up and try out. The Louisiana Digital Humanities Lab was born in that moment.

If you arrived here looking for the forms I created for field surveys, media logging, and archiving. (Specific links are to the Scribd pages.) You may also be interested in my collection of interview tips.

Percentage Change in State Populations for Last Decade

Percentage Change in State Populations by County

Percentage changes in state populations from 2010 to 2019 by county

What fascinates me about this map is the apparent emptying out of entire states like Kansas and Illinois. We know larger economic trends are in play — like the shift from rural to urban, but were there also distinct policies enacted at the end of the naughts the hastened population movements. In Kansas, some of this could be laid at the door of Sam Brownback, but what happened in Illinois?

And what about the emptying out of the multi-state Mississippi Delta? A combination of economics and long-embedded racism? (Is it African Americans leaving or is it everyone?)

In the Balance

Henry Glassie once observed that there were two great traditions of scholarship in folklore studies, one oriented toward data and the other toward theory. In the one oriented toward data, the analyst pieces together what theory she needs in order to explain the data at hand. Done well, such studies, Glassie noted, often offered data in excess of theoretical explanation, leaving the door open to future analyses by other analysts with different theories. In the tradition of scholarship oriented toward theory, the analyst begins with a theoretical construct and seeks out data to affirm it, revise it, refuse it.

Neither tradition is better than the other, and, in all honesty these aren’t separate traditions as two poles within the domain of folklore studies, though this axis of attention surely exists in other domains as well. At least in the American tradition(s), there are “no ideas but in things.” On the whole, we tend to look somewhat askance at what we term “ungrounded” theoretical work, which we too often dismiss as “philosophizing.” (Philosophy has, of course, its own sets of objects, often the process of thinking itself, but done poorly it does open itself up to having no objects at all.)

Strangely enough, we are more likely to accept work that is at the other end of the axis: folklore studies has a long history of valuing the collection of objects of various kinds. The rationale for such valuation is often twofold: one is the notion of salvage that lies at heart of folklore studies — that the preservation of material that would otherwise be lost to history is an important act, and valuable contribution, in and of itself; the other is that such data is fertile ground for the theoretical development and model-building that will surely follow. Both facets are in fact included in the Journal of American Folklore’s charter published in the very first issue: “it is obviously more important to gather materials which may form the basis of later study than to pursue comparison with insufficient materials; especially as the collection must be accomplished at once, if at all, while the comparison may safely be postponed” (7).

Most work in folklore studies occupies the space between these two poles, with the responsibility falling upon the analyst to decide what matters more to her: the particularity of the data or the universality of the theory. Henry Glassie described himself as an analyst more interested in the former, and it is not uncommon to see folklorists, and other analysts, in fact deriving their theories from the data itself: it is simply a further abstraction from the patterns usually embedded in the data itself. How portable the derived theory is is up to readers to determine, but it is quite common for an idea first articulated in one study to get taken up in another study, and then, through the slow accumulation of citations to develop into its own theoretical nexus.

In fact, quite a few of the bodies of work that we consider to be theoretical in nature really arose because their authors felt that the data before them was either not adequately explained or not addressed at all by the theories available to them. (This might be what the beginning of a paradigm shift looks like in the humanities: a lack of explanation or a lack of coverage. Imagine, for example, being a literary critic in the 1970s interested in Monique Wittig’s Les Guérillères and having only New Criticism available to you think about/through the novel. As a mechanic friend of mine might say: you don’t have the tools for the job. In some cases, some analysts simply wait for the tools to be developed, but other analysts decide to start building things for themselves. Sometimes they continue on their own, and sometimes they are joined by others.

Or sometimes they are part of a collection of like-minded analysts who find that what they are interested in isn’t even conceivable in the current theory (or theories). This is what happened with Richard Bauman, who found himself slowly assembling the pieces of a interpretive and ideational framework that became known as “performance theory” in folklore studies, but it wasn’t long, thanks to the interdisciplinary nature of folklore studies, before it slipped its reigns and became part of conversations in disciplines focused on more traditional kinds of performances, like theater studies, or in more formal kinds of performances, like communication studies. In his observation about the two traditions, Glassie observed that Bauman was an example of someone who enjoyed collecting data but largely saw it as a way to develop, extend, or refine the theory which was his central concern in much of what he did.

And so now you find yourself as apprentice authors in a field like folklore studies, seeking to find a place to start, and more established scholars like your faculty keep giving you what seems like evasive answers which too often seem like elaborate, and occasionally articulate, versions of “it depends.”

Because it does.

It depends on what your own interest and investments are, but you also need to recognize that the axis of attention does demand that any analysis possesses both data and some theoretical orientation. Time is short in a semester, that’s a given, but the press of time sometimes results in people engaging in needless wheel-spinning because they do not have the traction that results from having a clear sense of what their data is or what their theory might be.

You can, however, use this axis of attention as a way to gauge the nature of your project, and perhaps what it requires. If you have only one or two examples of a given phenomena, and that is all you are likely to have, that means your work needs to have a very developed theoretical framework that makes those one or two data points compelling examples of some larger phenomenon. If you have twenty or thirty examples, then it is likely you will require less theoretical orientation and will spend more time in your analysis, compiling and collating materials into interesting categories and trends. (This is still small data by data science measures but fairly large data by humanities standards.)

This also means knowing your own strengths, orientations, investments, interests, and (imagined and/or hoped for) intellectual trajectory — hile we sometimes imagine it as not like those other things, the academy is a kind of marketplace of ideas and approaches, and the work you publish will mark as you as a particular kind of scholar. This is dynamic, of course, and there are plenty of scholars who have changed their research agenda, for a variety of reasons, and enjoyed a switch from one orientation to another. (And I’ve seen it go both ways, so it’s not always towards abstraction.)

Notes from the Homeland: Day 1

While we may never know when COVID–19 first appeared, we can definitely date the moment here in the homeland when people realized that maybe they should take it seriously. It was the day the state closed K–12 schools for the month. It was also the day that the local university decided to cancel classes for two days and then re-open as an online-only institution. That was the day the toilet paper really began to fly (off the shelves).

It was a day like any other day for me. I drove the girl to way-too-early–in-the-morning track practice, came home, had a cup of coffee, prepared for class, and went to campus. In class, we discussed our contingency plan, and even managed to squeeze in a bit of discussion about the assigned reading.

As class ended, one of my students who is an RA (a residential assistant in a university dorm) announced that he had just gotten word that the university was in fact going online. Okay, we decided, good thing we had a plan. Everyone filed out. I went upstairs and attended a webinar on alternative ways to approach grading papers. It was just me, a grad student, and the faculty member who organized it, and we had to huddle around a laptop — because the room’s equipment was, of course, not working — but we enjoyed ourselves and the physical intimacy made it feel less like a webinar and more like a conversation.

Afterwards I headed home, where I heard that the governor had announced that the state was closing all public schools until the middle of next month. Oh, I thought. Now things are going to get goofy.

I decided that the best thing I could do was grab our standing household grocery list, add a few items for a long-ish weekend, and head to the closest grocery store and get a shop in before all the parents picking up kids from school, and knowing they wouldn’t be going back for a month, decided they needed to stock up for the apocalypse.

Too late.

When I walked into the store, I didn’t really worry that the cart I grabbed was the last one: this particular store isn’t necessarily the most organized, and they are often running low on carts. And it wasn’t that crowded as I worked my way through the produce. But by the time I cleared through the meat section and was heading to the back corner of the story to pick up milk and eggs, it became clear something was weird: there was a line of carts.

As I crossed the middle aisle that runs the length of the store, I saw that the line of carts ran from the back to the front. As I continued on my way to the back corner of the store, I was following the line of carts. As I turned the corner to go forward again to the bread aisle, I was following the line of carts. The line of carts was wrapping itself around the store.

And the line wasn’t moving, only growing longer.

I looked at the handful of items in my cart, and I turned to the store employee who had his phone out to photograph the line. I apologized as I told him that I was abandoning my cart.

“No problem,” he said. “I’ll push it back into the cold walk-in.”

“Thank you.”

“You know we open at five in the morning?”

“I’ll see you then.”

And I left and came home and stayed home until the sun went down.

The Neuro-Science of Narrative

Silbert, LJ, CJ Honey, E Simony, D Poeppel, and U Hasson. 2014. Coupled neural systems underlie the production and comprehension of naturalistic narrative speech. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 111 (43): E4687-96. PDF.

Zacks, Jeffrey M., Nicole Speer, Khena Swallow, and Corey Maley. 2010. The Brain’s Cutting-Room Floor: Segmentation of Narrative Cinema. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 4: 168. PDF.

Markdown to PDF in 1 Line

With the rise of markdown as the default formatting for so many note-taking apps, and really good apps like Bear, Ulysses, and Notion, working within a markdown-only setup has never been easier. For the most part, I use those apps like inboxes, moving anything that needs keeping or gets larger than a single page into my folder system, which has served me well for, well, decades, now. Once there, I now use Typora for writing — for a long time it was FoldingText, but Typora has finally surpassed it in terms of ease of use and functionality. (I still keep FoldingPaper around, because.) For coding, I use Atom, which handles interacting with GitHub readily, which is where most of those projects live.

The remaining gap in functionality has been going from markdown to the printed page. MD to HTML and then into Word or Pages is okay, but I would prefer to stay in markdown up until the final moment of output, and now it looks like there is a simple path: pandoc + wkhtmltopdf:

pandoc --pdf-engine=wkhtmltopdf -o filename.pdf -c some.css filename.md

Make sure your version of Pandoc is up-to-date. I had an older version which did not take kindly to the --pdf-engine option, but once I updated, everything “just worked.” (FTR, I use MacPorts, which made installing, and upgrading, pandoc as well as installing wkhtmltopdf super easy. I then made sure wkhtmltopdf was in my PATH.)

Borges on Psychological Realism

In a wonderfully concise passage in his 1940 preface to Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel, Jorge Luis Borge — taking issue with Ortega y Gasset’s elevation of “psychological” fiction over the “fantastic” — offers a devastating critique of the pretensions of a great deal of modern “psychological realism”:

The Russians and their disciples have demonstrated, tediously, that no one is impossible. A person may kill himself because he is so happy, for example, or commit murder as an act of benevolence. Lovers may separate forever as a consequence of their love. And one man can inform on another out of fervor or humility. In the end such complete freedom is tantamount to chaos. But the psychological novel would also be a “realistic” novel, and have us forget that it is a verbal artifice, for its uses each vain precision (or each languid obscurity) as a new proof of realism.

The Gift of the Past

This Christmas my mother wanted to give my daughter a locket that had been her mother’s. A marvel of the jeweler’s craft, the locket offered a glimpse into another world: when opened, two leaves, in addition to the cover, pop out to allow four photos to be seen at once. Inside were the photos my grandmother had placed there of her husband and three children. It was easy to imagine the meaning such a magical mechanism made possible: she held her entire family in her hand, could take her world in at a glance.

Such mechanics are hardly called for in an era of smart phones with bigger screens and higher resolution and the ability to hold thousands of images than the four thumbnail-sized, grainy, black and white photos pressed so carefully into the locket, but my mother wanted my daughter to have something from her past. My daughter was struck by the artistry of the locket, but the four photos meant nothing to her. As she considered it, my daughter offered that she might wear it, but she would want to replace the photos.

My mother’s face first fell, and then the blood drained from it. After a pause, she continued as if my daughter had not responded, offering to build a shadow box for the locket, so it could be hung on the wall, since people these days didn’t wear things like lockets.

The conversation that followed proceeded awkwardly and not without hurt feelings on both sides, with my mother feeling like the past, her past, was being too quickly hurled into oblivion and my daughter feeling like she was not being allowed to live her life as she chose. My wife and I encouraged a change of conversation, but I had glimpsed in the exchange something with which I was already struggling.

For in another part of our house, there is a drawer in which I keep a handful of mementoes, a pocket watch that belonged to my grandfather and a pocket knife that belonged to my father. Both men are now gone. Having never enjoyed wearing a wrist watch, I used to keep my grandfather’s watch in my pocket, but it was replaced with a smartphone over a decade ago. I don’t see myself going back. And while I like my dad’s pocket knife, I had already in some way inherited from him the habit of keeping a knife handy by having a pocket knife of my own, and, to be honest, I like the greater number of features my Swiss Army knife possesses over my dad’s simple pocket knife.

So both the watch and the knife rest in a drawer, where, every so often I glimpse them, take them out, think about the men who once carried them, and then lay them to rest again. I may have once shown them to my daughter, but they are not a part of her world. While my father was a part of her world, my grandfather was not, having died almost a quarter of a century before she came into existence. And so these mementoes of mine are mine alone. If such objects like the watch and the knife have any meaning for her, it is in my attachment to them and her attachment to me. Otherwise, when I too am gone and she has to decide where things go, it is just as likely that the watch and the knife will be given or sold.

If anything remains, it will be the act of keeping a knife in a pocket, which brings me to an interesting intersection. I have two kinds of mementoes from my grandmothers. From my maternal grandmother, I have an Oster Kitchen Center, which I use regularly, and I also have her way of making spaghetti sauce, which I make every week for my daughter. From my paternal grandmother, I have an afghan, which doesn’t get much use, but I cook dishes I learned from her, like crawfish étouffée and gumbo. My daughter often requests these.

What I am left with in my thoughts is that the best things we leave behind are not tangible things like lockets, watches, and knives but intangible things like recipes and other such small actions, many of which don’t really strike us as an inheritance, or even heritage. I’m sure some will respond that it’s about making memories and not keeping memory objects, but I don’t know that I ever set out to make a memory with spaghetti sauce.

I guess what I want to say to my mother, and the many like her that fear we are leaving the past, their past, behind, is that you cannot determine the past for the future, only the future gets to choose that, so, if there is a lesson in this holiday moment about the gift of the past, it may very well be: you better be nice. Because if you aren’t, you may very well end up forgotten.