A conversation with Steve Almond, author of the Life Lessons essay.

By Steve Almond
Updated May 05, 2009
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Colored pencils in a white bin
Solution:Everyone fears tossing something out only to realize―six months, a year, or five years down the road―that she shouldn’t have. Keeping things around “just in case” makes people feel safe. If your main problem is an overflowing closet, try the “packing for a trip” trick. It goes like this: You’re packing for a month’s vacation―you’ll need both dressy and casual clothes, for warm and cool weather, and you can fill two big suitcases. Then take all the other things and place them on a rack in your basement or attic. If you want to wear any of those exiled clothes in the coming days, grab them. But as the months go by, you’ll be shocked at how few of those clothes you need or even think about. From there, it’s a baby step to a Goodwill bag. Still have separation anxiety? Box up the stuff you’re not quite able to part with and write on the outside, "Open in August 2011"―or whatever date it will be one year from now. Then tuck it away in your basement, attic, or storage facility. If a year from now you find that you didn’t miss the items, it will be much easier to part with them.
| Credit: Nato Welton

Real Simple’s Noelle Howey spoke with Steve Almond, author of the Life Lessons essay “In Defense of Male Clutter” (June 2009), about Accumulated Male Junk (AMJ), how his wife really feels about it, and his oh-so-glamorous writing process.

Real Simple: What inspired you to write this essay?
Steve Almond: Uh, my wife’s contempt? This is one of the few areas where I can’t quite explain myself to her. Why do I need all this...stuff. And the more I thought about it, the more it became clear to me that my AMJ had deep, neurotic roots. That’s true, I think, of anything you keep around for a long time.

RS: Did this essay prompt your wife to feel differently about your AMJ?
SA: Sort of. I mean, my wife isn’t exactly shining up that rusty bread box at this point. But I think she appreciates that I took the time to explain, in a more coherent way, why my office looks like a junk shop. Let’s say it like this: At least now the real issues are out there. It’s not just an argument about “keeping the house neat.”

RS: You wrote for Real Simple last year about trying to spend no money for a week. Did you get any reaction to the piece? And how’s that new frugality panning out these days?
SA: The reactions were mostly nice. Nobody threw anything. A number of women expressed relief that we weren’t married. As for the “new frugality,” I’m feeling sort of unhappily vindicated. Because guys like me are always preparing for the worst financially, and, well, things have turned that way. So my wife and I are both cutting back on spending a great deal. Everyone is, I expect.

RS: Turning to your writing itself, can you tell me what your process is like?
SA: Yikes! I generally sit around in my underwear and waste time for several hours. Then, when I feel guilty enough, I bang out a bunch of words. Then I read those over and they usually suck, so I try to go back and “desuckify” them (that’s a technical term). Then my computer crashes. It’s all quite glamorous.

RS: What are you reading these days?
SA: Diana Joseph has a great book of essays called I’m Sorry You Feel That Way. Also, the novel The Dart League King, by Keith Lee Morris. Both brutally funny and sad.

RS: Tell us about your latest book and any other writing projects you have underway.
SA: The latest book is a bunch of essays about all the AMJ in my head. That includes worshipping Kurt Vonnegut, getting kidnapped by a reality-TV crew, hating the Boston Red Sox and Sean Hannity, and surviving mind-boggling adolescent sexual humiliation. People either like it a lot or send me angry letters. The next book is related to those 4,123 CDs in my basement. It’s about being a crazed music fan. The good news is: It’s short. The better news is: It will come with a free CD!

To purchase Steve Almond’s latest book, (Not That You Asked), click here.

The Essay

One of the best decisions I’ve made in my three-plus years of marriage was to move all our belongings into our new home by myself. Not that it was really a decision, exactly. Given that my wife was across the country finishing up graduate school at the time, it may qualify as something closer to dumb luck.

Nonetheless, it spared us from having to endure a great ordeal, one known to couples all the world over as the Inspection of Accumulated Male Junk (AMJ). In my own case, this junk included, but was not limited to, a rusty bread box dating back to the Eisenhower administration, two hand-painted walking sticks, a 78-rpm phonograph, a broken snow blower given to me by my old landlord, and exactly 4,123 CDs. I lovingly packed these assorted items into milk crates. And once I arrived at the new house, I stashed them in various places―the garage, our home office, and a basement storage area we took to calling the Serial Killer Room, owing to a sizable stain on the floor that may or may not be human blood.

My wife eventually did discover and examine my AMJ. She did a lot of sighing. She did a lot of blowing dust off the sundry objects, then coughing theatrically. When she came to the inflatable shark, she merely shook her head. “Is there some reason,” she wondered out loud, “that a 40-year-old man needs an inflatable shark?”

Well…yes. And this is what my wife (and, really, all women) need to understand about AMJ: It’s not supposed to be practical. In the always perplexing male psyche, AMJ serves one of two purposes: Either it functions as a reminder of our joyously unkempt bachelorhoods or it represents our wholly unrealistic hopes for the future. The shark falls into the former category, calling to mind my rakish single-man days in Miami Beach. The snow blower, on the other hand, represents the delusion that I will someday achieve the masculine aptitude required to repair a snow blower.

It should be noted that the vast majority of AMJ falls into the reminder category. My friend Owen, for instance, who is now happily married with a child, has chosen to outfit his basement with many of the accessories from his fraternity years. Does his wife approve of his neon beer signs and the machine used to chill Jägermeister? I would guess no. But she recognizes the genuine emotional needs these objects fulfill and she lets it ride.

My wife has made similar concessions. If I want an ugly red newspaper rack in my office to evoke my years as a reporter, so be it. Ditto the grubby mail bins that I use as file cabinets and the smudged tabloid clippings that blanket my walls.

Look, we all need something to remember our pasts by. After all, most men don’t keep journals. We don’t gather photos into albums. We’re not even especially good at hanging on to love letters (unless they contain explicit material). It’s not that we don’t get nostalgic. It’s that we’re too lazy or embarrassed or preoccupied to memorialize particular eras of our lives. And, thus, we’re left with the strange detritus that constitutes AMJ.

Do I really need the battered black softball glove that saw me through eight seasons in left field? Or the Soviet military cap that marked my brief and disastrous affair with a Polish exchange student? Or the broken wristwatch I possibly shoplifted from a Graceland souvenir store?

Yeah, actually, I do. Consider the donnybrook I got into with my first serious girlfriend. We had just moved in together, and in an effort to “clean up the place,” she tossed out my favorite sneakers. I will grant you that they had multiple holes and were perhaps malodorous. But I had bought these shoes in the Old City of Jerusalem and had worn them to climb Masada and wade into the Dead Sea (this helped to explain their unique funk). I couldn’t quite articulate this as a 21-year-old, but those shoes were a part of me. I never forgave her.

My wife’s only persistent AMJ complaint concerns those 4,123 CDs I mentioned earlier. Her argument is entirely sensible. Now that we have a digital library, we should sell/donate/recycle the CDs. So every month or two, I head downstairs to the Serial Killer Room, fully intending to do her bidding.

Here’s what happens. I drag out a crate and start sorting through the discs, and invariably I find one―say, Destination Failure, by the Smoking Popes―and I slip it into the stereo and start thinking about how much that album meant to me when I was a miserable graduate student in Greensboro, North Carolina. Then I get all misty and crank up the volume and start dancing like an idiot.

I head upstairs a little bit sweaty, out of breath, and passionately clutching my new favorite old CD.

My wife shakes her head.

“No, seriously honey,” I say, “you don’t understand. This album got me through 1997!”

But what of the huge box of old electronics that lives in our garage, right between the abandoned tool kit and the stack of New Yorker magazines dating back to 1989? Can this stuff really be said to possess sentimental value? No, this constitutes the AMJ that represents our hopes for the future.

You see, while women dream of, say, peaceful afternoons with the perfect book, men dream of converting that tangle of defunct laptop adapters and answering machines and phone cords into a super-robot capable of taking out the garbage.

This is where the tool kit comes into play. We’re pretty sure we could construct this robot―let’s call it the AMJ-1200―but we need to learn how to use that soldering kit first, the one we never bothered unpacking.

Obviously, this is going to be a pretty intensive project. So we’ll need something to read during the downtime, which brings us to that pile of magazines. We’ve been meaning to catch up.

So you see, this subset of our AMJ actually represents a crucial, if imaginary, part of us. The part that is competent and efficient and capable of MacGyveresque bursts of invention. To throw away the props of this fantasy would be to dash our dreams. To reduce us, basically, to the lazy, underachieving oafs you perhaps know us to be. Really, nobody wants that.

Having said all this, I am aware that there will be some women out there who consider me full of crap. (Spoiler alert: My wife is one of them.) They will argue that my fancy acronym and consequent explications amount to a prolonged rationalization, a highfalutin excuse not to clean out my closet and make my peace with the present.

To which I respond by suggesting that none of us have made our peace with the present, not entirely. In this era of geographic dislocation, with people moving from city to city, unmoored from their histories, we all long for a stronger connection to our pasts.

The point I’m continually trying to make to my wife is that my AMJ is not simply a monument to my retentive neurosis or sloth. Those dusty objects are also time machines. Their value resides in the particular set of memories and emotional associations held by their owner. They have made that hallowed passage from physical objects to, dare I say, religious relics.

So please bear this in mind the next time you come across that bag of ratty T-shirts from our punk-rock phase, many of them with stained armpits, which is―OK, we’ll admit it―kind of gross. What you see as disgusting articles of clothing might just be articles of faith.