In Print

Random Overthoughts by Joyce Wagner

Overthinking can be a good thing

By Susan Wilson - July 20, 2006

"Random Overthoughts," by Joyce Wagner.
Plaidswede Publishing. 2006. 178 pages. $18.95.

Humor columnists are a tough breed. Week after week they have to find something funny to write about. Fortunately for Joyce Wagner, this doesn't seem to be a problem. "In Random Overthoughts," a neatly organized collection of her column Overthinking, which appears in the Sunday edition of the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, Joyce examines life through the wrong end of the telescope. Classic overthinking, which Wagner doesn't so much define as expound on, is "making a mountain out of a molehill" - an aphorism that she claims is the motto of all overthinkers. Simply put, no decision is simple. Her example of a classic overthinking moment is finding a $20 bill on the floor of the locker room, necessitating anguished hours of wondering what to do, examining the situation from all angles - keep it, leave it, leave a vague note - then making a decision to leave it at the front desk, only to rethink her decision. What if the front desk person isn't honest?

Another way to define overthinking, with all due respect, is to admire Wagner's ability to parse out the interesting bits from mundane daily life. The book is broken into sections: Our Homes, The Media, The Holidays, How We Grow, How We Look, How We Relate, and How We Play, with a snappy epilogue tying it all together. Chapters include Feng Phooey, Parodies-not sequels, Step-Dads: Abused, Confused, and Forgotten, and, my favorite, T-P Heads. In the last, Wagner recalls how, during her youthful years of long straight hair with eyelash grazing bangs, her mother expressed concern over how "my hair would influence my eyesight..." all the while her mother went around in hair "semi-permanently coiled around the curlers from the planet Pain, or wrapped mummy-style with half a roll of toilet paper." She writes: "Needless to say, these women were not very attractive to sleep with but, being good Catholics, the toilet-paper head turnoff was one of the few forms of birth control available to them."

Good columnists develop distinctive "voices" and Wagner's persona - Miss Writer Lady - is the voice of someone you'd like to go shopping with. (See "Shopping as a Competitive Sport.") Her essays are well-developed and consistent in finding the imaginative flourish. Taking the raw material of everyday life and twisting it sideways, she prompts the reader to slap oneself against the forehead in a "why didn't I think of that?"

The best part are her coinages. "Air Spats," defined as having an argument with an invisible opponent and saying all the things you should have said when that person was in front of you. We've all done it. Or her take on Feng shui, "discovered in 1989 by author Amy Tan. Its roots are in ancient China, where, sometime in the Yawn (between the Ping and the Pong) Dynasty...." Best yet, her interpretation of why one person's vacation at the start of the season is so dramatically better than someone else's at the end of the season. "Tourists become tired of fighting the crowds and lines and begin to take it out on service personnel... Service personnel begin to take it out on tourists. Pretty soon there's a wicked cycle of extreme not niceness spiraling out of control until no one is having a good time. We need to stop the madness."

The author and her "music teacher husband" whom she calls Mr. Holland (the pseudonym invented to protect him from not being able to buy an ice cream cone in peace, but we know him as David Wilson, former Island music teacher) lived on the Vineyard for a long time before decamping to New Hampshire, so there is enormous veracity in her observations about tourism. They have dual citizenship.

Joyce Wagner will be signing her book on Friday, July 21, 4 pm, at Edgartown Books; Sunday, July 23, 4 pm, at Sun Porch Books in Oak Bluffs; and Monday, August 7, 7 pm, at Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven.

Susan Wilson is a writer and author of several novels who lives in Oak Bluffs. Her column, The Last Word, appears in The Times.