Mom meets her match in Stunky
Life with children
Test your parental IQ:
Are Stunky, Dewgong and Weezing …
a) Rejected names for the Seven Dwarves
b) Signs of a peanut allergy
c) Pokémon characters
If you answered C, give yourself a medal. You've trekked in the Pokémon universe.
It's taken me a while to warm up to many of my son's enthusiasms, but over the years I've developed a working knowledge of Star Wars and Middle-earth, and I share Luke's desire to visit the Harry Potter theme park, scheduled to open at the Universal Orlando resort in 2009.
It's true that I find the wordless 'directions' of Legos aggravating, but I'm generally happy to build things with blocks. (If you don't own some Kapla blocks, www.kapla.com, put them on your next holiday shopping list. They're incredibly fun for all ages.)
Many games I remember liking as a kid seem shockingly boring now - does Monopoly ever, ever end? - but overall I'd say I'm a gaming enthusiast. We've all developed a recent devotion to The Settlers of Catan, once we slogged our way through the instruction manual.
But Pokémon eludes me.
If the world of Houndour, Papidash and Chikorita remains a mystery to you, here are some basics. Pokémon is part of a multimillion-dollar media empire controlled by the video game behemoth Nintendo, involving anime, video games, merchandise and books as well as the trading cards and games. It was created around 1995 by Satoshi Tajiri, whose childhood interest in bug collecting influenced the concept's development.
My son Luke's initial experience with Pokémon involved using his allowance money once a month to buy a packet of the cards.
Typically he'd rip it open in the car on the way home, pore intently over them for a few minutes, announce disappointedly that there was only one good card, whatever that meant, and then leave them scattered around in messy heaps.
The cards themselves are sort of cute to look at. They generally feature made-up creatures with clever names and associated powers. (Weezing, for example, does damage by Mist Attack. Stunky has Severe Gas.)
Most kids initially collect and trade Pokémon cards, as far as I can tell, based on their interest in the characters on the cards. It's obvious from looking at the cards that they can interact with each other, but it's confusing, to say the least.
I found them tedious. And it quickly became clear that the Pokémon company designs the cards so you have to keep buying new ones because the old cards become useless and unable to work with others. An early lesson in modern computing?
I was hoping that the whole thing would just quietly fade away, like Luke's former interest in Thomas the Tank Engine (honestly, have there ever been more boring cartoons?). But it lingered, until finally one day I received some information about a state Pokémon champion who lived right down the street.
What was I thinking, you might ask, taking Luke with me to interview 11-year-old Olliver Barr? That he'd take a violent dislike to the kid? Realize that Pokémon was a scam designed to milk young children out of their money? Appreciate what a great mom I am?
At least he could help me not feel completely out to lunch during the interview.
As it turned out, Olliver is exactly the kind of kid parents want to have: friendly, articulate, polite and well-rounded. His charmingly open face still bore traces of flush from a basketball practice. He also plays piano and tennis.
The Abernethy Elementary School fifth-grader showed us around his collection - more than 1,000 cards neatly categorized in boxes and books.
His bedroom walls are decorated with Pokémon posters and numerous medals and ribbons he's won from his competitions.
To play the game, I've learned, you build a deck of just 60 cards (generally), based around a certain character. One of Olliver's favorites is Garchomp. He also has a Gallade deck. The characters have different abilities and weaknesses the others exploit. At least I think that's how it works.
One thing I was hoping was that Luke would learn that being a Pokémon champion takes years of hard work. Unfortunately, Olliver tells us that he's been competing for less than a year and that already his goal is to compete in the world championships, which would involve a trip to Hawaii.
'I just want to get invited,' he says, sounding like a seasoned competitor.
Luke, as you might imagine, is hooked. Jennifer Barr, Olliver's mom, says she feels like he does learn math skills and strategy from the games. She's also deservedly proud that he and a friend recently taught 'Winter Weeks' classes on the game to other Abernethy students.
The two of them help convince me that I shouldn't stand in Luke's way. So one recent, beautiful Saturday afternoon, Luke spent about six hours at a tournament in the back of the Guardian Games store in Southeast Portland.
I had a brief moment of thinking I could get into it. All the people are very nice and, unlike many other competitive environments, seem dedicated to the idea that anyone and everyone can play.
Several parents mentioned that it was great for their kids who hadn't really clicked with any particular sport.
But it takes parental dedication. At the state championships in Salem a couple of weeks ago, Olliver's family was there for eight hours.
I've now been to two events, and I don't understand the game any better than I did at the beginning.
Luke, on the other hand, with the patient help of Olliver, figured it out almost immediately and has been hankering to go again (both Guardian Games and Loki's Games have regular Pokémon competitions).
So I guess this is going to have to be one of those things that there will be many more of in coming years - things we don't and can't do together.
But if anyone wants to start a Settlers of Catan league, we're there.
For information about Pokémon games and events, visit www.go-pokemon.com.