My 9-year-old son, Anton, is deeply into Pokémon. I, however, am so ignorant of the culture of Pokémon that I had to ask him where to put the accent in the word.
First, there are the cards. Piles of them. Stacked by his bed, under his bed, and on the shelf over his bed. They also sprout, mushroomlike, on the arms of chairs, on the kitchen table, and on the bathroom sink. Truth to tell, I don't know where he gets all these cards. It is as if, like living things, they are multiplying of their own accord.
There are also Pokémon graphic novels and GameBoy cartridges. And special "strategy guides" detailing the cryptic ins and outs of the Pokémon universe. Anton will spend two hours at a clip inching his way through these volumes with all the focus of a Talmudic scholar. But when I glimpse a page in an effort to improve my understanding even a little - nothing. Zilch. Nada. It is like trying to make out cuneiform.
So I asked my son outright to explain what Pokémon was all about. It was a well-meaning effort on my part to take an interest in something that meant a lot to my kid. Anton seemed happy to oblige. But two sentences into his explanation - with its references to Pokémons, badges, and battle stations - my eyes glazed over.
Anton is so enamored of Pokémon that, several weeks back, he made a startling request. "Dad," he begged, "will you please find me a Japanese person?"
"What on earth for?" I asked him.
"To teach me Japanese so I can understand more about Pokémon," he quickly answered.
It was an earnest petition, and I took it under advisement, although I was equivocal about asking someone to usher my son even deeper into a domain that I had absolutely no capability of sharing with him.
When I was a kid, we had card-based cultures, too. Baseball cards, for instance. We collected them, traded them, put them in albums. But our parents were able to share that experience with us. Once, when I opened a new pack of cards, my father was there to witness my joy when, right under the pink slab of bubble gum that came with every pack, I saw that I had a sought-after card called "Slugger's Three," a joint photo of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Bobby Richardson. I was in heaven, and so was my dad.
There were nonsports cards as well. I recall, back in the '60s, an ongoing series of cards called "Mars Attacks." I collected them avidly, the initial cards detailing the invasion and the last ones showing the victorious counterattack of the earthlings. But my parents could understand what was going on, too: I never had to ask them to find a Martian to interpret events for me.
Pokémon, though, seems to exclude parental interest rather than invite it. This thought lingered with me as I drove to New Hampshire the other day to bring my older son home from college for spring break.
When I got to his dorm, he asked if his roommate could come home with us. I took a glance at the other boy, who was sitting in an easy chair. What struck me most was not his shy smile or quiet demeanor. He was, simply put, Japanese. "Come on," I invited Tak. "I want you to meet someone."
When I got the boys to the house, I immediately went to pick Anton up from the home of the friends who had been watching him.
As I brought him inside our house, I told him to close his eyes. "It's a surprise," I assured him when he questioned me. Then, bringing him before Tak, I added, "Now open them."
Anton gave Tak a double take, and then looked at me, back at Tak, and at me again. "I got him for you," I said, and Anton was positively transported.
Over the course of the week, the soft-spoken Tak and my loud-spoken, animated, dramatic 9-year-old hit it off.
Tak has shown him some Pokémon revelations on the GameBoy while Anton literally hovers over his shoulder, his quick brown eyes darting with intense interest as he follows his mentor's every move.
In addition, Tak is teaching Anton some of the Pokémon-related Japanese he has been thirsting for.
Normally, I am very disciplined about Anton's daily dose of Pokémon. But with Tak in the house, I have let things ride because I feel the Japanese boy is such a nice, wholesome kid to look up to. And, of course, I'm happy that my son is so sublimely content.
But now that Tak's visit with us is coming to a close, I'm trying to go through my own mental strategy to figure out how to break the news to Anton. I mean, what will he do when he realizes he can't keep him?