Mandan News

Brian L. Gray: Satchels aren’t just for girls


I was often accused, when I was younger, of being a bit on the feminine side. I believe getting taunted back then partly had something to do with the fact that I had something called a heart. I was a sensitive type, and didn’t always do things that were approved by the youth male species, because apparently society doesn’t think choir, theatre, dance, band and speech are considered masculine activities.

These days I still occasionally fall prey to a little light mockery. One item I always carry with me these days is a bookbag – also known as a messenger bag, or a satchel. Many of my friends jokingly call them man purses. Whenever I hear this, I refer them to the movie “The Hangover,” in which a character named Alan carries a satchel. Alan at one point in the film declares to his friends, “It’s not a man purse. It’s a satchel. Indiana Jones wears one.”

I recently bought a new bookbag, one that’s capable of carrying not only my books and notebooks, but my laptop and SLR camera. The downside to the purchase was that I no longer had an inside pocket for my smaller items, which includes my calendar, a thumb drive or two, a digital camera and a pocket dictionary.

I packed them all in a side pocket, but things were so tight that I figured I’d have to pull out of the items. The item I used the least was the dictionary, so I took it out.

But doing so made me feel off, and I wasn’t sure why. So I stuffed it back in the pocket. I then realized I had just undone what I’d originally intended to do merely seconds earlier, so I took it back out. A little while later, once again, I sensed something was off. I felt less without it in my bag. I put it back, then took it back out, and this continued on for a few more moments, where I was eventually forced to delve into myself in a situation that couldn’t have been more remedial. I couldn’t pinpoint what was really going on, and I felt I was sinking into a maddening reality where I had no control over my impulses or thoughts, and I had to fight to dig into my psyche and memory vault in order to figure out what was going on here.

It then hit me, and I remembered why I carried this dictionary with me wherever I went. I immediately placed the dictionary back in my bag for good.

I always carry the dictionary with me because my uncle, a military veteran who served in some of this country’s battles, used to own one like it. He passed away when I was eight, but for many years I visited him just about every other day, and got to know him during those visits. Keeping that dictionary around, in its own way, meant I was keeping a part of him alive. It’s like keeping a memory in my pocket.

I’d purchased the dictionary at a rummage sale for 25 cents about 15 years ago, and have carried it around ever since. Over the years I suppose I’d forgotten why I kept it around; it was no longer to remember my uncle but because I thought it was valuable to have nearby.

I know that I spent a quarter on it because of a message I wrote in the opening page of the book, which also displayed how overtly passionate I was about owning this dictionary when I first got it. The previous owner, someone named Wanda Jenkins, wrote her name on the first page. When I bought it, I wrote right below Wanda’s signature, “No-No-No! This now belongs to Brian L. Gray! I paid 25 cents for it, (expletive)! This is rightfully mine now!”

I did this because I knew how important it was to me, to continue something my uncle used to do. Wanda no longer had any right to assume the dictionary was still hers anymore. It was now mine, so that I could honor my uncle.

The influences of people I’ve stumbled across in my life aren’t only visible in my bookbag. Attitudes, traits, behaviors, beliefs, even the way we speak, are formed by those we know.

I see this in myself, traits I’ve picked up from those close to me – my sister, who taught me how to face my fears with an inner courage and a sense of humor, or my dad, who taught me to live with patience and a quiet dignity – and this sacred list goes on.

Who are we, really, but a composite of the people that we care about? People we choose to let into our lives, learn things from, want to be more like, try to become. We pick what we adore from those dear to us, and work to improve the parts of us that we know aren’t working so well. In essence, each of us are the best people in the world that we know we can be. We are a collection of the best we see in others.

And keeping around that dictionary in the stuffed side of my bookbag has given me the qualities I believed my uncle had – a thirst for knowledge, the desire to constantly improve oneself and others and broaden one’s horizons, never settling for the status quo. Eventually what I saw in him was something that I became, and that fine line of difference between us seemed to disappear… Who knows, maybe I’m reading too much into this. I am, after all, still a bit of a sensitive type.

Becoming what we admire in others is nothing to feel ashamed about, and we shouldn’t worry that we’re not being creative or independent enough to stand on your own. We stand on the shoulders of those who come before us, and shaping ourselves in that fashion is our way of holding on to what’s important, and ultimately keep them alive.

And I consider myself pretty lucky, because for me, holding on only cost me a quarter.