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Am I Still Here?

Looking for validation in a wired world

by Anthony Doerr

Published in the January/February 2009 issue of Orion magazine



Photo: Jason Houston

I HARBOR A DARK TWIN INSIDE. He’s a sun-starved, ropy bastard and he lives somewhere north of my heart. Every day he gets a little stronger. He’s a weed, he’s a creeper; he’s a series of thickening wires inside my skull.

Call him Z. I like weather; Z survives in spite of it. I like skiing; Z likes surfing the web. I like looking at trees; Z likes reading news feeds. I pull weeds in the garden; Z whispers in my ear about climate change, nuclear proliferation, ballooning health-insurance premiums.

Last week I flew into central Idaho on a ten-seat Britten-Norman Islander to spend five days in the wilderness. The plane’s engines throbbed exactly like a heartbeat. The sky was a depthless blue. Little white clouds were reefed on the horizon. Slowly, steadily, the airplane pulled us farther and farther from the gravel airstrip where we started, over the Tangled Mountains and the Tangled Lakes, big aquamarine lozenges gleaming in basins, flanked by huge, shattered faces of granite, a hundred miles from anything, and the ridgelines scrolling beneath my window were steadily lulling me into an intoxication, a daze—the splendor of all this!—and then Z tapped me (metaphorically) on the (metaphorical) shoulder.

Hey, he said. You haven’t checked your e-mail today.

“I THINK,” Thoreau wrote in his essay “Walking,” “that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

Ha! Four hours! Clearly Thoreau did not own a BlackBerry.

Yesterday—and this is embarrassing—I checked my e-mail before leaving for work and after I got to work, and I checked it every now and then during the day at work, and, after bicycling home from work, a total distance of two miles, I checked my e-mail again. Just in case a few e-mails flew over my head through the rain while I pedaled home.

It’s disconcerting, it’s shameful. I tell myself: e-mail is work-related. E-mail is work-related and anything work-related is family-related, right? Because work makes money and money feeds the family. Money justifies all. Doesn’t it?

What my evil twin Z knows, and what I am loath to articulate, to even contemplate, is that checking e-mail or tinkering around on Facebook or reading snippets about Politician A on Blog B is not about making money at all but about asking the world a very urgent question.

That question is this: Am I still here?

Each time Z makes me guide the little mouse cursor to the Send & Receive button, he’s hollering into the impossibly complex snarl of underground and aboveground fiber linking every computer to every other: Am I part of this? Am I still here?

Yes, you’re here, Z, says Eddie Sloan re: Enlarge Your Penis 3+ Inches (100% GUARANTEED). You’re a part of it.

Yes, you’re here, Z, says Mark J. Silverman from legal, you’re here. Now forward me that memo.

Yes, you’re here, Z, says Matt Torrington from requisitions. You’re here all right, right here in last place in our football pool.

Since purchasing a little glassy machine called an iPhone, I’ve started checking e-mail in classrooms and in coffee shops. I’ve read news articles at stoplights, at my sons’ swimming lessons, at restaurants, and yes, once or twice in the bathroom while I peed.

Tap, tap, tap. Scroll, scroll, scroll. Paul Krugman, baseball scores, tide tables, http://www.edge.org, Immanuel Kant, blender-eats-camcorder, the tour schedule has changed, click here to watch a venomous snail paralyze a goldfish. Information, information, information—it’s all sustenance for that rawboned, insatiable, up-to-the-second twin of mine. I can stand in a river with my little sons beside me pitching pebbles into a deep, brilliant green pool with a flight of geese flapping along overhead and the autumn sun transforming the cottonwoods into an absolute frenzy of color—each leaf a shining, blessed fountain of light—and Z will start whispering in my ear about oil prices, presidential politics, the NFL.

What, Z wants to know, are we missing right now?

Addiction, neurologists say, changes the physical shape of our brains. Each time old Z finds another text message, another headline, another update, my brain injects a little dopamine into a reward pathway.

“You’ve got mail!” squeals the computer and—whoosh!—here comes a shot of dopamine.

I feel stronger, says Z.

Five minutes pass, the dopamine fades.

I’m weak, hisses Z. I’m hungry. I need to see a picture of Joe Biden.

WHAT IF, while you read the last few paragraphs, something in the world has changed? What if, during the past five minutes, someone, somewhere, sent you a text? Shouldn’t you go and check?

Being addicted to the wired universe might be perfectly healthy, of course, and it’s certainly defensible beneath the triumvirate of technology, curiosity, and progress. I’m the first to admit that there’s something enchanting and invigorating about my computer. There’s magic in reading a note from a friend in Rome and clicking through Halloween pictures from New Jersey and verifying John Steinbeck’s birth date in two clicks. The Internet is indeed its own strange, blessed fountain of light.

But sometimes I think Z’s demand to feel connected is tilting us both toward derangement, especially when we rise together at three a.m. and stare for a half hour into the black vacuum of the backyard and drink a glass of milk in the doorway of the kitchen before walking over to the computer and waking it up and finding out that while we sweated and twisted in the bedsheets, BeachReady Body had been preparing a totally unique and groundbreaking Body Transformation Formula for us, as well as for Leslie in New Mexico and Ben in Des Moines.

“We fall in love, we drink hard, we run to and fro upon the earth like frightened sheep,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson. “And now you are to ask yourself if, when all is done, you would not have been better to sit by the fire at home, and be happy thinking.”
Do we like sitting by the fire?

We do.

Does it make us happy to think? It does. For a while. But pretty soon don’t we start worrying, now that we’ve stepped away from the world, that the world is slipping past without us? Don’t we wonder, when we come back, Am I still here?

Oh, the strange mix of revulsion and pleasure Z and I felt when we returned from five days under the sky in the middle of Idaho and watched the e-mail counter piling up: 21, 32, 58, 74 e-mails! Z has 74 e-mails! Z is indeed part of it all! Z was missed! Z exists!

We’re not the first to wonder about all this, Z and I, not the first to sense that maybe our shared life is rushing by too quickly, too feverishly. We’re not the first to feel as if we are scrambling to make our voices heard against an infinite and obliterating silence.

During the five days Z and I spent in the mountains, we saw lots of Shoshone pictographs, paintings made in caves mostly, and under overhangs: finger-painted elk and owls and dogs and triangle-bodied hunters with bows. Many of the pictographs in that area include hash marks, like rows of fence posts scratched downhill, but it’s anyone’s guess as to what these marks originally meant. Maybe they were offerings to the spirit world, or tallies of successful hunts, or records of vision quests. Maybe they were the consequence of someone sitting beside a fire and thinking happily away.

Whatever they once meant, they mean something else now. They mean memories are fragile, beliefs are tenuous, contexts are temporary. They mean nothing is stable—not mountains, not species, not cultures, not e-mail. The only quantities that ultimately persist are gravity and mystery. Uproar, as Keats said, is our only music.

What did I do today that will still retain its original meaning two hundred years from now? Might it be better, and more lasting, merely to walk home right now, and open the backyard gate, and lie down in the grass?

WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME you were dazzled? When was the last time you lay down on a block of granite and fell asleep beneath the sky? Our few remaining pockets of unconnected, unwired time—walks, airplane trips, camp-outs, reading a novel on a beach—are dwindling fast. And yet: The Earth is 4.5 billion years old! There are at least 100 billion stars in our galaxy! What could be wrong with shutting down the computer some afternoon and sauntering for four hours through the woods and over the hills and fields?
“Dad!” calls my four-year-old son, Owen. He runs inside; his hands are cupped; his eyes are wide open.

“I found a grasshopper leg!” He flexes it back and forth; he wants to know if he can keep it.

I throw my phone onto the couch. I lift my son into my lap.

“When I am in the country,” wrote the old English critic William Hazlitt, “I wish to vegetate like the country.”

Z hates vegetating. Z wants LinkedIn, Twitter, Google. Z wants me to pick up my phone and finish reading my e-mail. Instead I take my sons on a walk. Clouds are blowing into the valley, big and dark and full of shoulders, and the light is low and golden. The sage, blooming in the gulch beneath our house, billows and shines.

We try to be quiet; we try to be diligent; we try to breathe.

Am I still here?

All I have to do is look into the eyes of my children, walking beside me through the evening.

Yes, Daddy, their eyes say.

Of course you’re here, Daddy. You’re right here. 

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Anthony Doerr's most recent book is Four Seasons in Rome. His fiction has won the Discover Prize and three O. Henry Prizes. He lives in Boise, Idaho.

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