Transcript

38:

Simulated Worlds
Transcript

Originally aired 10.11.1996

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/38

Act One. National Tour.

Man 1

From PRI, Public Radio International.

Woman 1

From PRI, Public Radio International.

Man 2

From PRI, Public Radio International.

Woman 2

Public Radio--

Man 3

Public--

Interviewer

Radio International.

Man 3

--Radio International.

Interviewer

One more time.

Ira Glass

It's not enough, some guys say, to have the right boots and the right 19th century authenticated gun and the right uniform made from the right fabric with the right buttons and no zippers, of course, because they had no zippers back during the Civil War. No, it is not enough.

But what is enough? Some guys come to Civil War reenactments and bring sodas and coolers and Band-Aids. There are guys who wear wristwatches and contact lenses. The thing about recreating the Civil War is that everyone draws the line somewhere else.

Reenactor 1

It's better if I walk in than if I drive in.

Reenactor 2

I don't wear no underwear.

Reenactor 3

I don't carry pears or bananas or anything like that. Where are they going to get bananas during the Civil War?

Reenactor 4

I eat raw meat.

Reenactor 5

We have people here who believe that their impression's more authentic than somebody else's because they have fleas.

Reenactor 6

A Chinese man came to me and wanted to join the unit. There were no Chinese in the 100th. My unit, I would prefer to have just plain old Caucasian males.

Ira Glass

This tape is from a documentary by Jessica Yu called Men of Reenaction. And she found out that when men stage Civil War reenactments, sure, there is some tension between the Union and the Confederate forces. But the real battle is the one within the ranks over who is properly authentic and who is not. And like any conflict that's big enough and important enough to people, this conflict has spawned its own vocabulary. The guys who do these reenactments call themselves either hard-cores or farbs. You can guess what the hard-cores are. Those are the guys who really want to be authentic. Farbs, well, farb is short for far be it from me, as in "far be it from me to judge what that person is doing right over there."

Reenactor 7

A farb? A farb is someone who is not as authentic as you think of yourself. That's the easiest way I put it. A farb is anyone who would wear tennis shoes or would wear modern eye glasses or would wear cotton instead of wool. When I see someone in line and he's got modern glasses, that takes away from my event. It might not affect his event, but it takes away from mine.

Reenactor 8

I'm in this for fun. I'm not really in the Army. And so if I want to have an ice chest hidden in a wooden box that only I know is there, then I will do that. I draw the line at what the public sees and perceives.

Ira Glass

You know, it is hard to imagine people in other countries-- English and French citizens reenacting the Norman conquest or North and South Vietnamese recreating their bloody civil war. The question here is why do Americans devote so much emotional energy to restaging the past?

Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week, of course, we choose a theme, and invite various writers, performers, documentary producers to take a whack at that theme. Our program today, Simulated Worlds. We visit wax museums, simulated coal mines, fake ethnic restaurants, an ersatz Medieval castle, and other recreated worlds that thrive all across our great land.

The Italian writer Umberto Eco wrote an essay a few years ago in which he argued that this urge to create miniature simulated worlds is a particularly American impulse, a significant American aesthetic and one that is not talked about very often. Eco traveled the United States from Disneyland to Las Vegas to re-creations of old New York in museums. After a visit to the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas, where he saw a full, life-size re-creation of the Oval Office using the same materials as the original, Eco wrote, "Is this the taste of America? Certainly it is not the taste of Frank Lloyd Wright, of the Seagram Building, of the skyscrapers of Mies van der Rohe. But the American imagination demands the real thing, and to attain it must fabricate the absolute fake."

On today's program, Act One, a quick national tour. Act Two, writer Jack Hitt on simulated dinosaur worlds. Act Three, we get Medieval on you. Well, we take a Medieval scholar from the University of Chicago-- a guy with an actual British accent, so you can tell he's for real-- with us to Medieval Times, a suburban castle cum restaurant cum jousting arena. Act Four, how Morning Edition fakes reality every day on the radio and why we fall for it. Stay with us.

Act Two. Dinosaur Exhibit.

Ira Glass

Act One, Travels in Hyperreality.

Wax Museum Guide

Now, back to Jesus. The following description is alleged to be derived from an ancient manuscript sent by Publius Lentulus, president of Judea, to the Senate of Rome. It reads, "There lives at this time in Judea a man of singular virtue whose name is Jesus."

Ira Glass

Where are we? A wax museum in San Francisco in front of 13 life-size wax statues recreating Leonardo da Vinci's painting, The Last Supper. In this act of our program, rather than use the Michelin guide to tour America, we're using Umberto Eco's essay, "Travels in Hyperreality." And in researching that essay, Eco visited no fewer than seven-- that's right, seven-- wax versions of The Last Supper between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Eco was fascinated with American wax museums, partly because he said that unlike wax museum in other countries, he says, "American wax museums try to reconstruct entire worlds with a kind of maniacal, chilling attention to detail." This museum, for example, runs 85 different soundtracks in its different rooms. There are scenes of wax figures bathing waist deep in real pools of water. There's a full-scale reconstruction of King Tut's tomb. There are three-dimensional life-size wax versions of a dozen of the world's most famous paintings. A typical exhibit in the World Religion section of the museum, Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on a rocky slope, eerie red light with flashes of white lightning.

[THUNDER]

Wax Museum Recording

I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other god before me."

Ira Glass

Eco had a name for these over-the-top production values. He called it "reconstructive neurosis."

Rodney Fong

My name is Rodney Fong. I'm actually the grandson of the gentleman who opened this museum in 1963. That's my grandfather Thomas Fong.

Ira Glass

Rodney's family owns the largest wax museum in North America, which is in Los Angeles, and the second largest, which is this museum at Fisherman's Wharf. His family owned three wax museums visited by Umberto Eco when Umberto Eco wrote his essay. Rodney himself is an easygoing, friendly sort who grew up working in the museum's shop after school, now 30 years old and the general manager of the place.

And you might think that growing up in a wax museum would be kind of a fun thing for a kid. But he said that was not his experience.

Rodney Fong

Actually, I was terrified to go into the museum because my father always used the museum as a threat. If we were not good, we'd have to spend a night in the Chamber of Horrors. So actually to this day, I still get the heebie jeebies walking through by myself.

Ira Glass

Rodney tells me we have to rush through the museum because there is so much to see. Over 300 statues, historical figures like Neil Armstrong and Geronimo, right next to fictional characters like Don Quixote and Alice in Wonderland. The juxtaposition is actually kind of dizzying. And Umberto Eco talks about this odd feeling you get in a place like this as "a spatial, temporal haze, where centuries get confused." One room, for example, depicts a dozen people at an outdoor cafe.

Rodney Fong

Mark Twain--

Ira Glass

Smoking a pipe, looking very stern.

Rodney Fong

Rembrandt, Caruso, Andy Warhol--

Ira Glass

In a leather jacket.

Rodney Fong

Whistler, Beethoven, Toulouse-Lautrec. Who else is down here?

Ira Glass

Hemingway's off by himself. And Mozart, Beethoven, and Whistler are sitting at a table together. And there's a can of Campbell's tomato soup on there. And you get the feeling that Andy Warhol reached over--

Rodney Fong

Right. And put that on there.

Ira Glass

Umberto Eco writes, "When you see Tom Sawyer immediately after Mozart, or you enter the cave of the Planet of the Apes after having just witnessed the Sermon on the Mount with Jesus and the Apostles, the logical distinction between real world and possible worlds has been definitively undermined."

Ira Glass

There is something so strange about combining figures from different historical moments together.

Rodney Fong

Really, part of that is because of space. I mean, we keep adding figures year after year. We have to start categorizing them and putting them together.

Ira Glass

Eco says that one reason Americans have an urge to build elaborate wax museums, to reenact the Civil War, to construct full-size, fake Colonial towns, is that we just don't have as strong a sense of history as Europeans have. And so it's like we're seeking to ground ourselves in some vivid sense of history. And these are the tools that we use.

Rodney and I turn a corner, and we see this combination of historical figures. Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, Galileo, and Bill Gates, in a sweater, holding a copy of Windows 95. That's just down the hallway from a room called "Wickedest Ladies," where the plaques read, "Jezebel, biblical siren," "Salome, biblical siren," "Lucrezia Borgia, siren of the Renaissance," and then there's Mata Hari, who, for some reason, is a dead ringer-- I'm not kidding-- for Barbra Streisand.

There's also a room with figures that are very mysteriously grouped. They are Boy George, Lawrence Welk, Danny Thomas, John Travolta. What is the theme of this room, OK? Performers you suspect are gay? Scientologists? Has-beens? Rodney has no answers. He takes me to stand in front of a room with just one lone figure, wielding a gun. Chuck Norris.

Ira Glass

Now, why is it that Chuck Norris gets his own room and Nelson Mandela has to share a room with four other people?

Rodney Fong

If we had other action figures, they'd be in this room also.

Ira Glass

But for now, Chuck Norris not only gets his own room, he gets a full movie set. That's what it's like. There's a beach with a blown-up car and pieces all around him plus that semiautomatic weapon. The point of all this obsessively reconstructed detail, Umberto Eco says, is partly to reassure people that no expense has been spared. "This," he says, "is what Americans want. An insane abundance, like at those supposedly classy American restaurants, all darkness and wood paneling, dotted with soft red lights that offer the customer, as evidence of his own affluence, steaks four inches thick and lobster and baked potato and sour cream and melted butter and grilled tomato and horseradish sauce, so that the customer will have more and more and can wish nothing further."

The logical outcome of this desire is places like the Madonna Inn, a hotel in California that Eco describes this way. "The poor words with which human natural speech is provided can not suffice to describe the Madonna Inn. Let us say that Albert Speer, while leafing through a book on Goudy swallowed an over-generous dose of LSD, and began to build a nuptial catacomb for Liza Minnelli. But that doesn't give you an idea. Let's say Arcimboldi builds the Sagrada Familia for Dolly Parton. Or Carmen Miranda designs a Tiffany locale for the Jolly Hotel chain. Calvino's Invisible Cities described by Judith Krantz and executed by Leonor Fini for the plush-doll industry. Chopin's Sonata in B flat minor sung by Perry Como in an arrangement by Liberace accompanied by the Marine Band No, that still isn't right.

"Let's try talking about the restrooms. They are an immense underground cavern, something like Altamira and Luray, with Byzantine columns supporting plaster baroque cherubs. The basins are big imitation mother-of-pearl shells. The urinal is a fireplace carved from the rock, but when the jet of urine-- sorry, but I do have to explain here-- touches the bottom, water comes down from the wall of the hood in a flushing cascade, something like the caves of the Planet Mongo.

"Then there are the bedrooms, about 200 of them, each with a different theme. For a reasonable price-- which includes an enormous bed, king or queen size if you are on your honeymoon-- you can have the Prehistoric Room, all cavern and stalactites, the Safari Room, zebra walls and bed shaped like a Bantu idol, the Kona Rock Room, Hawaiian, the California Poppy, the Old-Fashioned Honeymoon, the Irish Hills, the William Tell, the Tall and Short, for mates of different lengths, with the bed in an irregular polygon form. There's the Imperial Family, there's the Old Mill.

"The Madonna Inn is the poor man's Hearst castle. It has no artistic or philological pretensions. It appeals to the savage taste for the amazing, the overstuffed, and the absolute sumptuous. At a low price, it says to its visitors, 'You can have the incredible, just like a millionaire.'"

[COAL MINE SOUNDS]

OK, OK, OK. We've changed scene. Maybe you've figured that out. Now we're in a coal mine, a fake coal mine. In fact, we're faking being in a fake coal mine. That's just how fake this is. I'm just sitting in a radio studio playing you a tape. You know, simulated worlds actually are so abundant, within a half-hour drive of where I sit right now here in Chicago, where we broadcast our radio show from, right now, I can jump in the car and visit-- OK, I'm just going to list quickly-- a re-creation of an Al Capone speakeasy, a Medieval castle, a 3-D IMAX movie theater which attempts to recreate three-dimensionality, a store called Nike Town, which essentially puts you into the world of a Nike commercial.

And at the Museum of Science and Industry, a fake human heart big enough to walk through, an actual 727 airplane, an entire airplane inside the museum, a real German U-boat captured during World War II, and, built directly into the museum, a fake coal mine.

Tour Guide

Now, the first bell will indicate that we are arriving, and the second bell will indicate that we have arrived. Please feel free to touch the coal. It has been laminated, therefore it isn't harmful to you or your clothing.

Ira Glass

A couple years ago, historian Frances FitzGerald wrote this book called Cities on a Hill, where she argued that one of the defining qualities of America is the number of people here who try to shed the past, completely shed it, start over tabula rasa, and create a new way of life for themselves, in new communities unlike communities that had existed before. From the survivalists in Montana to the gay community in San Francisco to the Mormons in Utah. Looked at in this way, creating new worlds is what this country is. It is what we do.

And so when we create these little small, simulated worlds for recreation, wax museums and Medieval castles and technicolor movies, for that matter, we're just doing in miniature, for recreation, what we do for real, as a whole, in our culture.

Act Three. Medieval Times.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Dinosaur Exhibit. Well, all this hour, we're talking about simulated realities, simulated worlds, wax museums, Civil War reenactments, fake coal mines. You know, one thing you can say about all those worlds is that anybody can tell that they're fake. When you go to a wax museum, when you go to the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas, this huge pyramid with a full-scale replica of the Sphinx out in front, you do not stand there and wonder, "Did I wake up this morning in Cairo?" You know where you are.

The world of dinosaurs presents a different problem, and that's because of the veneer of science. When you go to a natural history museum and you see a dinosaur exhibit, the impression that you get is that what you're seeing is not conjecture, not theory, but settled, scientific fact. But as our contributing editor Jack Hitt recently discovered, the world of the dinosaurs turns out to be a man-made world made up of a pile of bones. And like most other things that are man-made, our picture of the dinosaurs has been flawed and imperfect. And it changes.

Jack Hitt

Not long ago, I attended a lecture by dinosaur revisionist Jack Horner. He's a notorious troublemaker, a hippie without a formal degree who turns dinosaur thinking upside-down. He's a tall, skinny thing in jeans and boots, tangled gray hair and a generous beard. Horner's speech was entitled, "Would Tyrannosaurus Rex Eat a Lawyer?" The reference, of course, is that scene in Jurassic Park when the lawyer gets yanked right off the john by an enraged T. rex.

Naturally, we all thought the answer to his semi-rhetorical question was, sure. Of course. T. rex could eat a lawyer anytime, anyplace. But Horner was there to prove that T. rex could only have eaten the lawyer if the lawyer were already dead. T. rex, he said, was not a mighty, roaring predator, not king of the dinosaurs, not Godzilla, but a slow, putzy scavenger who wandered from carcass to carcass half-blind, snacking on rotting scraps.

No one in the room quite wanted to believe it. Little kids just sat silent in incredulous awe, as if he had said that sharks only ate plankton. But Horner piled on the logic. Typically, predators, he said, like lions and tigers, have powerful front arms to hold their catch while they rip out the jugular. T. rex has no arms, really. Just those dainty claw-ettes, comparable to having a few fingers growing out of your shoulders. Interesting, but not exactly threatening.

T. rex also had big, muscular legs, usually interpreted to mean he could run fast. But Horner asked, how swift are weight lifters? In nature, sprinters tend to have long calves and short thighs for leverage, like ostriches. Animals with stout, muscular legs tend to be walkers, typically slow, usually not too coordinated. Horner was making sense. There were lots of shifting of chairs and coughing.

And then there was more. CAT scans of T. rex skulls have revealed a sense of smell more elaborate than any other species except the turkey vulture, a handy adaptation if you're pursuing stinking corpses. Also, his eyesight was poor, not good for predators, who tend to hunt at twilight. At last, Horner said, T. rex didn't even walk the way every book and National Geographic magazine and Spielberg movie has shown us, standing up, constantly roaring, front claws poised to strike. No, instead, he walked about like a sandpiper, a bird, head down, tail straight out, body parallel to the ground, but with all the agility of a penguin.

It was a strange feeling in that room, as we all experienced a kind of reverse epiphany, when something you are absolutely certain to be true turns out to be completely false. But you know, once you hear the evidence, it just seems obvious. I mean, those tiny claws. Come on. Weren't they always a tip off?

But after a while, I no longer cared about the new T. rex as much as I wanted to know where that older figment, the marauding predator, had come from. We invented him, of course, constructed him from just a few bones. But why? From his office in Montana, Horner told me that the old T. rex was, in part, the creation of a kind of arms race.

Jack Horner

Cope and Marsh. It was a competition.

Jack Hitt

Edward Cope and O. C. Marsh, the two Indiana Joneses of the turn of the century. Cope was associated with the University of Pennsylvania, Marsh with Yale. They were called the bone warriors. Two men who hated each other's guts, and every year pursued larger pots of money to fund more elaborate excursions, to find even bigger bones.

Jack Horner

It was during the time of P. T. Barnum. It was during the time when you put up your most fantastic stuff in your museum or your circus or whatever it is you happen to have. And you draw people in. And you're competing with everyone else.

Jack Hitt

So a lot of T. rex's original persona came not from science but just good old American hucksterism. That's why they forced T. rex to stand unnaturally upright, on his hind legs. Although there was one other reason.

Jack Horner

It's because people made dinosaur halls with very high ceilings, and they had to fill up that extra space with something. But I mean it's hard to tell what it was. I mean, they wanted these animals to look ferocious, so they made them as tall as possible.

Jack Hitt

And to make it as tall as possible, they had to bend the tale of T. rex, and worse.

Jack Horner

They broke skeletons. They removed parts. It's funny. I mean, early on, they actually found evidence that animals didn't drag their tails. But in some cases, they actually removed the evidence so they could get the tail on the floor.

Jack Hitt

Does it get any more rigged than that? But it isn't just that most of what we thought we knew about dinosaurs was wrong. It turns out that in the century or so since dinosaurs entered human consciousness, they've passed through discernible fashions, changing, not as often as skirts or haircuts, but at a slower pace, like men's lapels, about every 10 to 15 years. They've served as a kind of national psychic Erector Set, which we've put together in different ways depending on our mood.

To compile a comprehensive list of dinosaur fashions, I drove back to the first great hall of dinosaurs, New York's Museum of Natural History. Earlier this year, they assembled their dinosaur bones into a new, more so-called "accurate" display. Appropriately enough, before the visitor even gets to see the new exhibit, one has to walk through a tall chamber housing the old standards, the twin icons of dinosaur myth.

It was good to see them again. Here was T. rex, head bowed in his new humble position. And across the aisle with his long, gracious neck and frisky, five-ton tail was the old friendly Brontosaurus. I know he has some new name, but I can never remember what it is. Anyway, Brontosaurus and T. rex stand in a room all by themselves these days, obsolete models parked next door to the hipper, newer displays. In other words, dinosaurs of dinosaurs.

I was shown around by Philip Fraley, a mounting expert. He's the man who does the actual work of making these bones assume the positions they do. We sat beneath the rear end of the Brontosaurus. Philip tried to take me back to the first decade of the century, when even seeing a dinosaur meant getting on a train and coming to one of the few museums that Cope or Marsh had stocked. Given Fraley's occupation, he wanted me to appreciate something else.

Philip Fraley

The beauty of the armature itself.

Jack Hitt

By armature, Philip means the steel frame that holds the bones up. And I did come to appreciate its beauty.

Philip Fraley

T-joints and unions, and they've been threaded. Our pelvis weighs 2,000 pounds. So to lift that up and to have 2,000 pounds supported on inch-and-a-half pieces of steel requires a lot of engineering. The tensile strength of the steel, the cantilever weight--

Jack Hitt

This was high tech for its time. These creatures had slept forever, and now they were upright for the first time in 100 million years. What had put them back on their feet, literally, was the wrought-iron strength of Pittsburgh steel, the American Industrial Revolution. But the exact dates are also timely. The Brontosaurus went up in 1906 and the T. rex in 1912, just before World War I, when the slumbering giant of America awoke.

To the Europeans, we were still a friendly, dumb rube of Tocqueville's Democracy in America. But we were about to prove ourselves as international warriors. The crowds that flooded through New York's museum saw two images, the affable but dim Brontosaurus, and across the aisle, the berserker rage of T. rex, friendly until agitated, then fury, which is how the world came to see us, an amiable, joshing hick who, if provoked, will kick your ass.

By World War II, T. rex had become important enough to our nation that, incredibly, there were contingency plans to protect the skeleton the same way we protect the president and the original copy of the Constitution.

Philip Fraley

The country felt there was a likelihood that the museum could come under attack by the German Army or the German Navy. And in order to preserve the specimens, they contacted the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh.

Jack Hitt

So T. rex was shipped off to Pittsburgh, presumably where the Germans would never go. By the '50s and '60s, technology forever changed the dinosaur, and we came into post-war dinosaur fashion. Where the beast once was made from the T-joints of Bessemer steel, a new substance gave him an improved flexibility.

Philip Fraley

Plastics.

Jack Hitt

That's right, Benjamin. Plastics. Now any museum could have a perfect reproduction of New York's or Yale's bones. A plaster cast could be reproduced endlessly. But this took interpretation out of the hands of paleontologists and put it directly in the hands of museum curators.

Philip Fraley

What they allowed people to do was to put them into some outrageous poses.

Jack Hitt

So now dinosaurs could be jimmied into action poses, locked into face to face combat like two upright grizzly bears or reared back ready to assault. This was the '50s dinosaur, the dinosaur of kitsch. They were no longer held up by steel but animated by plastic, the essence of America at that time, a substance and a future entirely of our own making.

These plasticized dinosaurs continued until the cutthroat '80s, the decade of Michael Milken. In this era, no longer was the dinosaur a big, dim monster. Now he was a sleek, swift, calculating hunter, the Velociraptor, a six-foot tall predatory entrepreneur who learned and adapted quickly. He was the perfect dinosaur for global capitalism, who'd eventually star in a bestselling book and movie, Jurassic Park.

Muldoon

They're lethal at eight months. And I do mean lethal.

Alan Grant

Do they show intelligence?

Muldoon

Even problem-solving intelligence. When she looks at you, you can see she's working things out. They remember.

Jack Hitt

T. rex is so strange in that movie. He comes across like the elderly member of the family. His big scene is when he eats the lawyer. But T. rex is clearly second banana to our new star. His appearance is like Robert Mitchum's cameo in the updated Cape Fear, a wink at the audience from the grizzled original.

[DINOSAUR ROARING]

Now, the '90s dinosaur. Philip and I walked into the new dino display, where T. rex and the Brontosaurus hardly seem relevant. We see dinosaur eggs and baby dinosaurs. The ambiance is largely about parenting. The scenes are more ecological and holistic. We are meant to see these animals as part of the natural ecosystem of their time, eggs, babies, parents, death, bones. This is a story about the cycles of life, a warmer tale, a greener tale. This is a story of dinosaurs not as George Patton would see them, but as Al Gore would, emblems of a proper view of the environment. The Eco-saur, who's seen the light of family values and the beauty of biodiversity.

And in an era when America's role in the world is uncertain, when solutions to many of its problems are unclear, our nation's dinosaur exhibits speak directly to our time in bright yellow stickers attached directly to the display cases. That message, "We just don't know."

Jack Hitt

Like, look at this one right here. Look at this sign. There's a big yellow sign. And it says, "These are all intriguing hypotheses, but the fossils do not give us enough evidence to test whether any of them are correct. The mystery remains unresolved."

Philip Fraley

Well, right. I mean, I think that what we're saying is believe what you want to believe.

Jack Hitt

Still, after you've passed by every display, it's possible to sense a coherent thesis among the hedging plaques and timid explanations. I honestly couldn't put my finger on it at first, but Philip did.

Philip Fraley

Dinosaurs were the most successful life form that ever lived on this planet, and they became extinct. And extinction is a real part of life. And it's not so bad.

Jack Hitt

Well, sure, if you're a fungus or a bug. You know, it was only 100 years ago that dinosaurs signaled the beginning of American greatness. What progress we've made.

Philip Fraley

When the dinosaurs died out, the world went on and other species were created. One of those species happened to be the human form. I think that in all likelihood, our species one day will become extinct. And when that happens, that's probably not a bad thing.

Jack Hitt

I'm reminded of a Gary Larson cartoon. An auditorium of dinosaurs are assembled. They're seated in their chairs, their long necks and little pin heads looking quizzically at the dinosaur speaking on the stage. He's showing a big map of the world, poking at it with a pointer. And he's saying, "Folks, the news is bad. Another ice age is coming, food is growing scarce, and we've got brains the size of walnuts."

[MUSIC - "I'M A LITTLE DINOSAUR" BY JONATHAN RICHMAN]

Ira Glass

Jonathan Richman. And before that, Jack Hitt, a This American Life contributing editor and a writer who lives in New Haven. Well, coming up, we go back in time only 900 years with another simulated world. That's in a minute, from Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Four. Simulating Reality On Morning Edition.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme and bring you a variety of stories on that theme. Today's show, Simulated Worlds. And we have arrived at Act Three of our program.

Ira Glass

I'm just going to describe where we are. We're heading out on Interstate 90 here, just north of Chicago, towards the northwest suburbs. And it's just basically your basic industrial parks. There's a building called Intergraph.

Michael Camille

But we're looking for the Middle Ages. We're on a quest for Medieval authenticity, because we're going to Medieval Times.

Ira Glass

Medieval Times is a chain of seven fake castles across the United States. For about $35 per person, you get a jousting tournament and Medieval dinner. Drinks, commemorative photos, and a trip to the dungeon cost extra. To judge the authenticity and meaning of the experience, I asked Michael Camille to come with me. He's a Medieval scholar at the University of Chicago. And he's actually made it his hobby to visit Medieval re-creations and tourist sites wherever he can find them. He had never been to Medieval Times before, but he had been to several re-creations of the Middle Ages in Europe, where they do them in real castles.

Michael Camille

There's one called the Canterbury Pilgrims' Way in Canterbury in England, where you literally go into a space where everything, the sound and even the smell of the Middle Ages, is supposedly re-created. They say, see the sights, smell the smells. So you smell the farmyard where the peasants are milking the cows.

Ira Glass

And they had wax figures?

Michael Camille

And they had waxwork figures for the individual.

Ira Glass

And did they smell?

Michael Camille

They smelled.

Ira Glass

They smelled. The wax figures smelled.

Michael says he notices an upsurge in interest in the Middle Ages, in Medieval fairs, in Medieval re-creations. He thinks it's because most people see the Middle Ages as a time when life was orderly and simple, when knights were knights and peasants were peasants and people knew where they stood. Or that's what people think anyway.

Then there are the people who are attracted to the Gothic horror of the period, gargoyles, dungeons.

Michael Camille

It's the same thing. It's finding an ideal. Except the ideal's exactly the opposite. It's disorder, not order. It's monstrosity, not pageantry.

Ira Glass

Do you think that the impulse that draws people to a place like Medieval Times and to places like Medieval fairs, do you believe that that impulse that pulls people towards those things is similar to the impulse that makes you a historian of this period?

Michael Camille

People have different reasons for the time traveling-- is what we're doing now. Some people time travel now to really enter another world and to escape, ultimately. For our great-grandparents who liked Medieval things, I think it seemed very safe, the Middle Ages. If you were religious, it was a nice, sacred time. If you were interested in chivalry, it was a chivalric time and concepts of honor were crucial.

My interest, I suppose, is more-- I see it as a time of enormous other-ness to us today. I think of it as incredibly different from today. And it's that difference that excites me. It was a world in which you could get married when you were 12 years old, and when you could be burned at the stake for thinking certain things. I mean, it's a world of such difference. That's what fascinates me.

Ira Glass

See, I wonder, in fact, if they're going to emphasize an other-ness, or if we'll feel any other-ness, or if everything will be--

Michael Camille

Well, that's the interesting-- let's see. That will be interesting.

Ira Glass

We continue driving past industrial parks and suburban sprawl until finally, just past the corporate campus of one of the most high-tech companies in America, Motorola, Michael and This American Life producer, Nancy Updike, and I see the sign. Medieval Times, next right.

Ira Glass

OK, now keep your eyes peeled. See the flags over there? I bet they're underneath-- do you see it?

Michael Camille

Oh, my goodness. There it is. It's a wonderful-- look at the marvelous crenulation, with three flags, the American flag-- I can't see, it's too far away to see what other flag. And of course, that, [UNINTELLIGIBLE] have a problem. The American flag flying over a Medieval castle.

Ira Glass

A 14th-century castle, Michael says. A late 14th-century castle combined with a McDonald's. Picture, if you will, a low, square, industrial warehouse with turrets and castle towers stuck on here and there. As we pull up closer, we see that the whole building is made of this kind of plastic-y cement with lines carved on it to imitate stones. Michael marvels at what he keeps calling the heraldry, the huge, multi-colored shields hanging high on the wall facing the parking lot. They are authentic, he says. In the parking lot, we encounter an unpleasant smell, but we are unable to determine if it is authentic Middle Ages or not. And then--

Medieval Times Woman

If you would, proceed through the doorway. You should be meeting with the royal couple, His Grace the Count and the Lady Contessa.

Ira Glass

We're barely in the door and people in bright, velvety costumes are count and contessa-ing us. And we're quickly ushered before a man in a crown and a cape who looks a lot like the post-James Bond pre-Rising Sun Sean Connery and a woman in a glittery princess dress. It's not really the costumes that get to you in Medieval Times. Walking around, you realize the sheer power of language. Everyone is calling you m'lord and m'lady and it is hard to know how to respond. Everyone in our little group gets very awkward. For some reason, I find that I stop using contractions, as if no one around me speaks English as a first language.

Ira Glass

We do not understand that. We can not all go together.

Nancy, meanwhile, completely freaks out. I'm going to play you this piece of tape. And what you need to know is that when it starts, she's sticking a big boom microphone in the count's face.

The Count

I'm not familiar with that term, "radio." What is that? She's pointing a strange weapon at us, m'lady. I know not what that is. It's some kind of a mace, I believe.

Ira Glass

All of a sudden, without warning, she bows.

Nancy Updike

We mean you no harm.

The Count

Oh, is that right? Thank you. I am glad to hear that.

Ira Glass

Our photo is taken with the royals. Those photos are for sale later in the evening. And we are each handed a black-and-white paper crown. Everyone acts like there is no question whether or not we will, in fact, where these crowns.

Medieval Times Woman

Tonight you shall be cheering for the holy and pious warrior priest, the black and white knight. Your mortal enemy for this evening's tournament is the red and yellow knight.

Ira Glass

Michael, our Medieval scholar, is loving this. And I mean, loving it. He loves how they try to get the audience involved in the experience. He loves the fact that everyone is divided into six different teams, each rooting for a different region of Spain, each rooting for a different knight. He loves the fact that we were introduced to the lords of this castle.

Michael Camille

This is just wonderful. This is so much more exciting than I imagined. This is a really wonderful experience.

Ira Glass

Well, what are you seeing that you're liking so far?

Michael Camille

Well, I think that's very nice to be welcomed by the lord and lady of the castle. Hospitality was a crucial aspect of the Medieval tournament.

Ira Glass

Really?

Michael Camille

Its whole point was you were being hospitable. You were bringing people into your-- and giving them a little largesse.

Ira Glass

Because we're here as members of the media, we're soon taken aside to be greeted by the real lord of this particular castle. His name is Leslie Davies and he is not wearing a velvet cape, but rather a well-cut, expensive looking, dark blue suit.

Leslie Davies

I'm the man that cuts that fish. In other words, I sign the paychecks. So yes, I am the lord.

Ira Glass

Mr. Davies is the general manager here. He says that Medieval Times started in Spain. Its owners are Spanish. And so the tournament we're about to see is a re-creation of a Spanish-style tournament in the year 1093. He says the main difference between the two European castles owned by the firm and the seven in the States is that the crowds in the United States are less inhibited when they root for their knights. It is, by his account, a very profitable little kingdom they run.

Ira Glass

How much does one of these buildings cost you to put up?

Leslie Davies

Between $15 and $20 million.

Ira Glass

How many people do you serve here a year?

Leslie Davies

About 300,000.

Ira Glass

Marketing manager Steve Davidson pipes in.

Steve Davidson

That's 300,000 appetizers, 300,000 bowls of soup, 300,000 chickens, 600,000 glasses of Pepsi. It's rather involved.

Ira Glass

Now, to get a perspective on exactly what these numbers mean, I think we actually have to leave the scene in the castle for a moment. Let me get this sound out of here. OK, there. And now, well, let's do the numbers.

Medieval Times in Chicago serves 300,000 people a year. 300,000 is also the size of the audience of Chicago's public radio station, where I work. Now let us consider staff size. Size of National Public Radio's entire network news division, that's all of Morning Edition all of All Things Considered all of National Public Radio's reporters all over the globe is 195 people. Medieval Times has 250 full-time employees at this one castle. Remember there are six others in addition. Medieval Times has an annual budget that is millions of dollars larger than National Public Radio.

And all of this data may not mean all that much to you. But from where I sit, I feel that it forces me to this disturbing conclusion. And that is that I work for a radio network that is less popular than jousting, a sport that has been dead for 400 years.

Medieval Times Woman

All the way around, please, to the very last green section.

Ira Glass

The audience now files into an arena that seats around 1,400. It looks like a medium-sized professional hockey rink, partly because they have those Plexiglas screens around the edges of the oval to protect you, to divide you from the performers who are down there in the center. Instead of ice, of course, in the center there's sand. And the tiered seats that rise up steeply on all sides of this oval have tables in front of them for dinner. And the seats are color-coded. Everyone rooting for our knight, the black and white knight, sits together in a group. Michael notices the music.

Michael Camille

As these people are processing in, we have Gregorian chant religious music, beautiful, piped, liturgical music going on in the background. Which is very strange at a tournament.

Ira Glass

Strange and inaccurate?

Michael Camille

But again, I don't like using that word, "inaccurate." You can't measure an experience like this through accuracy, because I just don't think that's the right criteria to say this isn't right, because I think it's how it feels.

Ira Glass

But that doesn't feel quite right to you?

Michael Camille

The priest might do a blessing, or something. But you're not going to have monks singing part of the holy liturgy before a tournament.

Ira Glass

It turns out the entire evening is scored with music. It's like a movie. During the horse exhibition section of the evening, there's a kind of disco, horsey music. Nancy swears she heard Carmen at one point during the evening. But most of the music sounds like the soundtrack of a movie whose images and values, when you get right down to it, come straight from the Middle Ages.

[TRUMPET FANFARE]

Doesn't this sound like the theme to Star Wars?

Jim

Good evening, my lords and lady, and welcome to Medieval Times. My name is Jim and I'll be your serf tonight.

Ira Glass

Jim brings us each a Medieval appetizer, a kind of faux pizza, a Medieval roasted chicken, which is conveniently pre-sliced-- which is important because we're given no silverware and have to tear it apart with our hands-- and our Medieval Pepsis. Nancy and Michael find the food hateful, but I kind of like it.

Michael Camille

Are you a wench.

Photo Wench

Yes, I am a wench.

Michael Camille

Are you a drinks wench, or a--

Photo Wench

I am a photo wench.

Ira Glass

We're informed that "wench" is an actual job title here, that it's on the application. We wonder if people put it on their resumes once they've worked here. Cocktail wenches, server wenches.

Michael says the whole wench thing, the whole idea of it, is just complete bunk. In the real Middle Ages, women actually never served food to nobles, who were the only people who attended tournaments like this. And in fact, even the word "wench" did not exist until much, much later.

Michael Camille

So "wench" is-- you know, "ye olde wench," is a modern construction. That's a construction that's something to do with London pubs of the 18th century. It's not to do with the Middle Ages.

Ira Glass

Soon, another anachronism. All the serfs and wenches traipse out into the central arena.

Medieval Times Emcee

My lords and ladies, show your appreciation for your hard-working serfs and wenches.

Michael Camille

Oh. The serfs and wenches are out now. But you see, you'd never have serfs and wenches out on the tournament field.

Ira Glass

Because they're too lowly?

Michael Camille

They're too lowly. They're absolutely lowly.

Ira Glass

But this is America after all, where any serf or wench can grow up to be president. And so it is no surprise that commoners end up on the playing field with the nobles. And it is the nobles who star in the show. Six knights and six squires, all of them with long hair and fake chain-mail that gives them a look that's part Middle Ages and part Jon Bon Jovi. They start by doing these complicated dressage demonstrations with their horses. They have these beautiful Andalusian stallions. And the horses have been trained to side step and bow and weave in and out in complicated patterns.

The knights then do these various kinds of target practice on horseback. The capture flags, they hit bullseyes, they spear tiny brass rings with their lances. None of this, Michael says, would have been part of a real Medieval tournament. This would be practice, practice stuff you do beforehand.

Then the arena begins to fill with smoke. Fog machines pump out so much mist you cannot see the floor. There's eerie purple light and a hooded figure with a lantern.

Medieval Times Emcee

Oh, no. No, in the arena. This does not bode well, Your Grace. I shall summon forth your court sorcerer at once. Through this mist walks Lord [? Gallenon ?], high priest of the Druids.

Ira Glass

High priest of the Jews? Did he say high priest of the Jews?

Michael Camille

The Druid. The Druid. Druid. Now, this is a funny mixture. There were no Druids in 1119, Spain.

Ira Glass

The Druids were in England. And they vanished 600 years before tournaments like this. They built Stonehenge. This was the one moment at Medieval Times when Michael seemed truly disappointed.

Michael Camille

I think they're trying to evoke Mer-- why didn't they use Merlin, or something. Like, Merlin the magician, that would be more apt. So it's to bring in a feeling of magic. I suppose this is a New Age-y bit of it.

Ira Glass

After this, there are more impressive horse maneuvers. We're told that we're supposed to boo every time the green knight appears. The green knight is set up as the evil knight in this pageant. Michael says that particular color choice is not the best. He says that in the Middle Ages, green was the color of goodness, it was the color of godliness. Think Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Black, he says, would have been a more accurate color to represent an evil knight in the Middle Ages, but black representing evil probably would not fly in multicultural, modern America. Finally, target practice is finished, and the main event's about to begin. Jousting.

Michael Camille

You're holding a couch lance. That's the lance that you're holding under your right shoulder. And the whole point in the joust itself is to unhorse your opponent.

Ira Glass

So wait a second. These guys are going to charge against each other? I mean, it's just occurred to me, the reality of what's going to happen here. They're going to charge at each other and try to hit each other off of a horse with a big stick?

Michael Camille

That's what a joust is.

Ira Glass

How can you survive that?

Women and girls in the audience give handkerchiefs to the various knights to carry into battle, a historically correct moment that Michael likes a lot. And then the jousting begins. Over the course of the evening, we've learned next to no facts or history about the Middle Ages. But Medieval Times does stage a great fight. It's complicated. It's cinematic. As I said earlier, there's music through everything that happens on this arena. It's totally choreographed. It lasts a long time. And it involves no fewer than 14 people and six horses.

Ira Glass

Green knocked yellow off the horse. Now the green guy is coming at him with a-- ooh! What is that?

Michael Camille

That's a mace.

Ira Glass

It's a ball on a chain on a stick.

Michael Camille

Ooh, that's--

Ira Glass

And now the yellow guy is staggering around, holding a knife.

Medieval Times Emcee

Green knight. Hold. Stand fast. You have lost your weapon and therefore lost the honor of horseback. I say dismount and continue the fight on foot.

Michael Camille

So the green-- the [UNINTELLIGIBLE] knight is getting down now.

Ira Glass

Now, wait. Now, would that happen in a real tournament? They'd tell the guy to get off the horse?

Michael Camille

Yes. Because often tournaments would-- in fact, this is a misconception about knights. Even when knights went into battle in the battlefield, they got off their horses to fight. The English became the great warriors of the late Middle Ages by getting off their horses just like this and fighting on the ground. Because you couldn't do much on a horse. You could do the lance thing, but you couldn't kill someone up close.

Ira Glass

By the end of the evening, everybody's been killed except for the evil green knight, who gets sent to the dungeon and one other knight, our knight, the black and white knight. Later, we were told the whole thing's fixed. And they put us on the black and white team, because they knew he was going to win. Michael points out that the whole idea that these knights would try to kill each other is not historically accurate. Most tournaments were not intended as a fight to the finish. But despite this, he liked Medieval Times. In the car on the way home, he said that it was Medieval in spirit, anyway. It was spectacle, it was circus, it was populace, it was lowbrow in the best possible sense.

Michael Camille

There were hundreds of things in there I could have said were inaccurate, inauthentic, in terms of costume, design, action. But I think that's the wrong way to think about it. If that was an accurate representation of a Medieval tournament, people would be bored stiff. They wouldn't go to it. They wouldn't get anybody to it, because they lasted for six days. And they were like conventions of aristocrats. It wasn't the kind of experience that is going to be entertaining to people. So if they were being truly authentic, it would be very boring for us.

Ira Glass

When we driving out to Medieval Times earlier, Michael had said that the thing that appealed to him most about the Middle Ages was this other-ness, the fact that it did not seem like our world at all. And in the car home, I suggested to him that Medieval Times did not create that feeling at all. It was mostly familiar images from movies and storybooks. But he disagreed.

Michael Camille

It was weird enough in all the mixtures of strange things in it. I mean, the odd mixture of the modern building and the castle's structure and the long-haired hunky knights that looked like centerfolds from Playgirl with the ways that the things were mixed together. To me, in a strange way, it was Medieval. Because obviously, the Middle Ages is incredibly hybrid and confused. And again, that's what attracts me about it. It's certainly not the age of order and systematic piety that everyone thinks.

Ira Glass

But the strangeness that you're describing is not the strangeness of the Middle Ages. It's the strangeness of America.

Michael Camille

Exactly.

Ira Glass

Exactly, Michael said. In fact, as far as he's concerned, America is a very Medieval country, far more Medieval than Western Europe.

Michael Camille

In the Middle Ages, it was a pioneer culture. They were just beginning to create things. There was a sense of newness moving forward, evangelical, full of weird and wonderful mixtures, ultra-religious, and yet at the same time, ultra-decadent. I think that's one of the reasons why we're so fascinated in America with the Middle Ages. Because we're living it.

Ira Glass

In the commemorative photo they took of us at Medieval Times, the distinguished scholar from the University of Chicago is grinning happily, a paper crown on his head. The little mock frame they put the photo inside says in typeface at the bottom, "Your Knight to Remember." That's knight, K-N-I-G-H-T.

Act 4.

Ira Glass

Act Four, simulated worlds on the radio. I worked for National Public Radio's network headquarters in Washington starting when I was 19 years old, a long time ago. And I would like to talk for a minute about how reality is simulated, is constructed on programs like Morning Edition and All Things Considered, programs I love, programs I worked on.

Consider Morning Edition. Bob Edwards, the host of the show, says hello and he mentions a few stories coming up today. And then he says, "First, this news from Carl Kasell." Why does he do that? Well, presumably, Carl is closer to reality. He's closer to the truth, he's closer to the thing being simulated in this simulated world on the radio. And then Carl starts in with the first story. Carl says, today in Russia, somebody did whatever.

And then he hands off to a reporter. And again, why does he hand off to the reporter? Well, presumably, the reporter is closer to reality, to the truth, to the thing being simulated in this simulated world. And then the reporter comes on. And the reporter says, OK, today the Russian president said whatever. And then the reporter goes on, at some point during their story, to some piece of tape that they're going to play us. And that piece of tape is maybe 12 seconds, maybe 14 seconds, 17 seconds long. And it's like one long sentence, or maybe two sentences of somebody, some Russian, saying something about something, right?

And at that point, we're there. We've gone as far as we can go. We are actually at the real. We're hearing a tape recording made out in the world. This is the real. We have arrived. And it's interesting that the word for that piece of tape in radio journalism is the "actuality." Like, it's this precious piece of the actual world on the radio. Like you have this whole apparatus, and then finally you get to what's real. And what's funny about it is how puny it usually is. Like a sentence or two, you know? That's how much reality you get. That's how much actuality you get.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Nancy Updike and myself, with Alix Spiegel and Peter Clowney. Contributing editors Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin and Consigliere Sarah Vowell. Music help today from Stuart Rosenberg.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

In the years since we first broadcast today's program, Michael Camille, who was that wonderful Medieval scholar from the University of Chicago, who you heard in that last story, a guy, I have to say, who shocked us all by loving Medieval Times instead of looking down on it, Michael passed away at the age of 44, very, very young. You can read more about him if you want, at our website. The web address is www.thisamericanlife.org.

At the website, you can also listen to our programs for free, or, you know, you can download audio of our program at audible.com/thisamericanlife, where they have public radio programs, bestselling books, even The New York Times, all at audible.com. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our show by Torey Malatia, who reminds you--

Philip Fraley

Our species one day will become extinct.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.