Home » Blog » Poptech '09 » Anthony Doerr: Am I Still Here?

Anthony Doerr: Am I Still Here?

I’m blogging from Camden, Maine, at the wonderful Pop!Tech conference. This year’s a special treat. My wife, the lovely Velveteen Rabbi, and I are team-blogging, trading off posts. You can read her posts on her website, or just read all of ours on the Pop!Tech site, where Michelle Riggen-Ransom has been doing brilliant work thus far. There’s lots of bloggers in the crowd and on twitter – follow the #poptech tag for lots of different perspectives.

Fiction writer and memoirist Anthony Doerr dedicates his essay, “Am I Still Here?” to all of us in the balcony with laptops open. The story is about his evil twin, Z, who watches the online world while Anthony encounters the real world:

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.

The compulsion to check email is shameful, distracting, embarrasing, It’s asking the world, “Am I still here?”

Anthony Doerr, photo by Kris Krüg

Information is what the evil twin needs to thrive: “Information, information, information—it’s all sustenance for that rawboned, insatiable, up-to-the-second twin of mine.” Each bit of information injects dopamine into a neural pathway and strenghens a reward pathway. “I’m weak, hisses Z. I’m hungry. I need to see a picture of Joe Biden.”

Coming back from those five days in the mountains, Z feasts on a flood of unread mail, reassurance that we are, in fact, still there. But in the mountains, Shoshone pictographs tell stories we’ve forgotten, or never knew, how to read. “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.”

Z hates to vegetate, to just be. But that’s what his four year old son wants him to do, to be dazzled by the clouds, the light, the leg of a grasshopper. 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.