On April Fool’s Day, Google unveiled its new (fake) product, the Cardboard Plastic headset, which enables its wearer to experience, in 4D, “Actual Reality.”
The morning I read this satirical headline on my iPhone, I was standing in line with my fiancée, Meredith, and my daughter, Mitike, at the Orlando airport after three frenetic days at Universal Studios, a place where unreality seems incredibly real — and where a writer on spring break vacation can muse about what is real and unreal, and why it matters.
We visited Universal (which includes the Wizarding World of Harry Potter) because Mitike loves the Harry Potter series. All year, we’ve read the books aloud as a family, watching each movie after we completed the book. For Christmas and her birthday (and possibly next Christmas, too), Meredith and I gave Mitike the spring break trip to Orlando, complete with tickets to Universal. Santa Claus gave her a Gryffindor robe and a wand, with a note: “I think you may need this.” And so the drift from Actual Reality began.
I expected an amusement park; I expected Meredith and I would share wise smiles at the special effects. I didn’t expect that, inside Universal, it becomes disturbingly difficult to decipher what is real from what is not. Of course, the dragon that breathes fire periodically from the top of the Gringotts Bank is some sort of mechanical creation. Of course, the “magic spells” TK’s new interactive wand could perform are connections between motion detectors. And of course we didn’t reallytake a mining cart down into the bowels of Gringotts.
However, we did sit in a startlingly real old English square and sip butterbeer under the hanging signs of Diagon Alley, and we did converse with a goblin. When we stepped back into the Leicester Square Station, I blinked to see the San Francisco wharf. Later, we took a boat cruise into Jurassic Park, and the stegosaurus looked quite alive, its sides heaving with breath. Back in Hogsmeade again, we wandered into a real Hogwarts Castle, and all the paintings moved and spoke, and I couldn’t remember what was real anymore, actually.
What is real? Our second day at Universal, we stood in a movie theater and cowered at the sound of gunshots in the Terminator 2 3-D show, grinning at each other because we knew it wasn’t real. After all, at the entrance to Universal Studios, serious security guards search every bag of every visitor, and every person has to walk through a metal detector. We were far safer in the Terminator 2 show than we ever are in Colorado movie theaters or Colorado schools.
What is real is terrifying. What is unreal is entertaining — like the ridiculous message in Terminator that robots will someday dominate humans. Let me check my iPhone and ask Siri to make sure it’s not real.
What is real? In the long lines for the rides at Universal, families watch each other. How can that father scold his son so harshly? How didthose two get together? The teenager in that family looks miserable. Why is that twenty-something guy in line for a Harry Potter ride all by himself? And us? What do people see and think when they look at us? So that’s what a lesbian family looks like. Did they adopt that little girl, or did one of them carry her? Do they braid her hair themselves? Or: they’re sinners, living like that.
What is real? In the long lines for the rides at Universal, families watch each other. How can that father scold his son so harshly? How didThe line shuffles forward. We all nod at each other, and smile.
What is real? A woman walks by us in the New York part of Universal, trailing her two children and her husband, fixated on her phone. She smiles to herself as she scrolls through the family photos that she has presumably just posted on Facebook — photos of the four of them in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which they’ve just left. But this woman is missing the way her little daughter stares up at the fake New York skyline in awe, and the way her son tilts his head toward his father to listen. This woman is missing, too, the gentle angle of the late afternoon sun on the lagoon, the real way her family is here together. She nearly collides with us, so absorbed is she in the unreal world of her phone.
What is real? On our way to the airport in Denver, at the beginning of our trip, Mitike called to us from the backseat, “Look at how beautiful the mountains are! Take a picture on your phone!” The Front Range glowed orange in the sunset, and I murmured, “Once, people just enjoyed them without worrying about how to post their experiences on Facebook.” Meredith laughed, “Once people just worried about how to cross them.”
True. But at Universal Studios, twice, I caught myself admiring the etched silhouette of the mountains, glad I could glimpse them, until — twice — I had to remind myself that I was standing in flat central Florida, and that those “mountains” were a movie set Steven Spielberg had designed for the “King Kong: Skull Island” experience. The set is quite convincing. It looks real, even to a Colorado girl.
What is real? We lament that Donald Trump’s candidacy “can’t be real.” When our children have nightmares, we reassure them: “It wasn’t real.” When tragedy strikes, we cry, “This can’t be real!” When a friend’s brother visited her in Alaska, he exclaimed, “The glacier looks like a movie set — it doesn’t look real!”
What is real? We long for it — be real with me, we tell our close friends, our lovers — but it’s elusive. The moment we think we have glimpsed it, it shifts, and we don’t believe it anymore. You love me? Is this real?
Universal Studios does not try to answer any of these questions about reality for its thrill-seekers. Unapologetically, the park encourages visitors to leave their Actual Reality glasses at the entrance gate with the security guards. The intention, as with every movie and novel, is to forget reality a while, to visit an invented space.
But maybe we also visit places like Universal — and read novels, and watch movies — because visiting the invented for a while reminds us to recognize and love what is real. At the Orlando airport on our final morning in Florida, just as I finished reading the headline about the Google Cardboard Plastic headset, the TSA agent nodded at the three of us to move forward. “One of her moms can go through the scanner with her,” she said, pointing at our daughter. Without blinking.
What is real: people in this country have begun to see us as a family. I smiled at Meredith. No Cardboard Plastic headset needed — sometimes, the 4D experience of Actual Reality is sweet.
I loved visiting Universal Studios. I returned to Jurassic Park again and again, the little girl in me ecstatic to see dinosaurs “for real.” I loved watching my daughter’s open-mouthed wonder inside Hogwarts Castle, and I loved Meredith’s appreciation of the quiet (fake) San Francisco wharf. I love drifting away for a while into imagination. But I also love returning.
Right now, for example, I’m writing from a corner of the deck at my in-laws’ in Evergreen, Colorado, gazing every so often at the real skyline of mountains, the real blue sky, enjoying the real sun on my shoulders. A three-toed woodpecker and a chickadee take turns visiting the bird feeder to my right, and all around me, the spruce and pines stand in stately silence, real snow at their feet.
At the moment, I want only this Actual Reality: my daughter, running out to hug me and to ask if she can eat a piece of chocolate; my dog, who sprawls happily beside me in the sun; and Meredith, who is napping upstairs right now (still recovering from our Orlando trip), who intends to marry me in two months, and who loves me, for all that I am. For real.