By Jeffrey Sanzel
Public radio personality and prolific author David Bouchier has gathered 122 essays in his newest collection, the charming “Out of Thin Air.” Divided into seven loose themes covering such topics as technology, politics and travel, Bouchier covers many of the same ideas but always from a different angle. As they are based on his well-known radio commentaries, each essay is a clever gem, rarely more than two pages, and makes for insightful and entertaining reading.
In the Preface, Bouchier defines an essay as “the writer talking to you, one on one, about something that he or she finds interesting, annoying, bewildering, or funny.” This definitive statement guides the entire work. As we wend our way through his experiences, it is as if he is sitting across from us over a lively coffee. He is articulate and witty and, even when he is at his most hyperbolic, there is a sincerity that comes through.
Bouchier’s first essay, “Waiting for the End” appropriately deals with just that — the end of the world. He clearly gives us a sense of his life’s view and what will come in the ensuing pages: “The future is virgin territory, and any pessimist can claim it.” When writing of a cinematic look at the apocalypse: “The movie was two hours and thirty-eight minutes long. The actual end of the world needs to be snappier than that, or we will lose interest (average adult attention span: twenty minutes).” We now know who Bouchier is and can proceed in the full knowledge that we will laugh and be inspired in turns or, just as often, simultaneously.
Much of the book is taken up with issues of modern technology and the disenfranchisement of people of an earlier generation. What separates Bouchier from the usual curmudgeonly wheezes is that he has — albeit sometimes reluctantly — embraced not just the power of these changes but their necessity. Not that he doesn’t take many pointed and highly amusing shots at our slavish addiction to all things computer centric; he rails against them but still sees their value. “We are never alone unless the battery runs out.” He is not so much technophobic but “techno-wary.” Of cellphones, “I talk, therefore I am” is followed by his taking it a step further that this form of communication brings us closer to each other and yet isolates us from the world.
In his longest essay, “The Ghost in the Machine,” Bouchier makes the valid point that computers have rid us of the need for memory. With instant access, we have disconnected from ourselves and no actually living is done. We have become a society that survives in a virtual existence. While he is going to the extreme to make his point, there is a reality in his argument that demands we look inward.
“From Hardware to Software” is a laugh-out-loud equation of old-fashioned hardware stores with the heroic doctors of television drama with the dramatic of-course-it-can-be-saved. It reflects on a time when problems had solutions and mourns the loss of these kinder bastions of help and support and knowledge. In the same vein, the author writes a paean to the joy of the manual typewriter, gone the same way is these shops.
What helps enrich the pieces is that Bouchier is incredibly well-read and knowledgeable in a wide range of topics — literature (novels in particular), art and science to name a few. He encourages the reader to embrace science — even if you don’t understand it. He praises continuing education but never laments that education is wasted on the young. It gives a vast scope for interpretation and reference that enriches the depth of his exploration.
As stated, many subjects overlap (notably cellphones, computers and other contemporary gadgetry), but he manages to mine a different perspective with each vignette: He finds a singular awareness to highlight.
The topics that are covered are plentiful. The author’s thoughts touch on ideas from “selective forgetting” (a wonderfully accurate concept) to the danger of the smiley face. He pursues the danger of teaching fake history and the repercussions on young (and older) minds. Here, like so many places in his writing, he shifts easily from his acerbic and pithy quips to important concepts such as learning from history, not just ingest it.
Bouchier’s take on the opposite of procrastination — “pre-crastination” — is amusing and not a little disturbing; he finds that people who rush into things are not giving the proper thought. This leads to a siting of truly dangerous things that should give people pause: “double bacon cheeseburgers with fries, international wars, and marriage.” Even when taking aim at easy targets, his perceptions are both fresh and refreshing. Ultimately, in “We’ll Do This Later,” somehow he makes a strong case for procrastination. He is also adept at looking at two sides of a situation.
In “The Way We Were,” the author starts out with a pointedly ambivalent view of reunions but then comes to a much more introspective conclusion, finding the worth in the event. It is not just that he finds the two views but he is able to perceive multiple awarenesses.
“Worth Preserving” is a timely solution for maintaining historical sites. What is fascinating is that at first it seems like he is being tongue-in-cheek — and he might possibly be — but the concepts of preservation and accessibility are sound. It is this blend of humor and understanding that fuel his writing.
And yet, Bouchier’s take on nostalgia comes at the discussion from a different standpoint: “Every nation has its own tales of a glorious past that never existed.” He gives Downton Abbey as a prime example that the truth is much darker below stairs. Basically, the good old days that are glorified by film, television and novels never existed.
He laments the bookless bookstores that have become clothing emporiums — most notably university bookstores where books are screens “to goggle or Google at.” Clever word play is powerful and his succinctness is an arrow to the center, his dissections as swift and accurate as a scalpel.
“Losing stuff, like losing weight, is a lost cause.” We have too many things — we are saturated as “willing prisoners” of our acquisitions. Again, he turns his accusations inward and finds the positive in what has become a negative cliché — he finds the value in “stuff” as a connection to who we are related to from where we’ve come.
The author’s thoughts about wedding extravagance are really an exploration of marriage in the short and long term, calling to task the reality that in the modern age being average and fitting in trumps being Mozart. In the age of driverless cars, perhaps it is not the vehicles that should be recalled but the drivers themselves. In a flip on red-light cameras, he makes the case to reward good drivers for correct behavior.
The selfie as “a sudden plague of pathological vanity” is extreme — but not inaccurate, flying in the face of the cliché of a picture being worth a thousand words. The “Look at me, I’m here, I exist” is no more than a “flicker across the consciousness leaving no trace. They’re not worth a thousand words, they replace a thousand words.”
There is a great deal of strong advice in Bouchier’s writings. In “A Good Long Read,” he meditates on the transition from reading long books to embracing a series of books. This is a healthy and helpful suggestion to readers of desire but limited time.
An extended section on politics in the book should be made required reading in every school (and home, for that matter). The author’s view on the American system can be summed up in his observation that we have hundreds of choices for cereal but only two for president. He writes about the true heroes of our times and times past as well as a fascinating connection between clowns, Halloween and Election Day.
A discussion of a universal draft — men, woman, all ages an socioeconomic backgrounds — ultimately hints at broader ideas. He does the same thing with a darkly comic advocation of making everyone in the world an American. In his section on travel, Bouchier opens up with “Escape Attempts,” which hints at deeper themes — going from trips to war to marriage and children. He makes profound statements about the power of inner life, of reading versus travel. He points out that “to” is often less important than “from.” Style of travel from point of view as well as the unnecessary obsession with souvenirs all encourage us to look not just in the mirror but within ourselves.
The essay “The Business of America” is the smartest and most accurate assessment of the lack of values in our constant pursuit of meetings. In the “Right to Arm Bears,” Bouchier proposes leveling the hunting playing field by providing animals with guns. “Philosophy in the Slow Lane” meditates on life in the Long Island Expressway traffic jams, comparing it to the classic audio novels (Twain, Melville) he listens to when caught in the given congestion of our daily lives. All pithy statements; all with great truths beneath.
The best summation of Bouchier’s work would be in his own words: “What makes us different from bees and lemmings is that we can and do break away from the herd, and think our separate thoughts. We are bees with a perspective on the hive, which allows us to evolve and to create. It also gives us a headache.”
Thank you, Mr. Bouchier for the reminder of all the former. And your tag to this thought reminds us never to take ourselves too seriously.
‘Out of Thin Air’ is available online at www.amazon.com. Meet author David Bouchier at the Third Friday event at the Reboli Center for Art and History, 64 Main St., Stony Brook on Friday, Dec. 15 at 6 p.m. Bouchier will discuss his 25 years on public radio. The event is free.