Episode 32: Pokemon -Gotta Get By with the Ones You Have?


(Music starts)

            I think it’s starting to become a rule that I need to start each episode by apologizing for breaking a perceived rule. Like, it’s not even a running gag anymore. After all, it’s not funny. And even if it had been, once upon a time, the joke is dead, and dead things can’t run, not that they ever tried. That’s part of being dead.

            But I’ve been doing this show for a while. I can feel that I’ve built up something figuratively tangible. And I’m going to throw that out yet again just to make the episode I want to make.

            But this time, an acknowledgement or apology feels more appropriate. Because each episode should center on a specific piece of media, situated firmly in a medium. Because this is a review show. And I might have trended towards the fictional, but still, this idea of one piece per episode with the exception of podcast medley episodes feels pretty firm. And should be. But let me dismantle that right now.

            Yes, I want to talk about a piece of media that feels like one entity but maybe isn’t. Yes, this week, it is be fictional, but it’s not grounded in the same way as other topics have been.

            That’s vague. Not intentionally. Yes, I want to grab your attention and bring you into the fold, but look again at how I title this episodes. There’s no way for me to engineer some grand surprise nor do I want to. But I mean, I’m trying to talk about something that feels like a cohesive thing but actually also isn’t because it’s spread across many mediums and takes many different forms. A franchise is the technical term, but I don’t want to use that term. Because it still doesn’t feel quite right. Many things, still one whole. And much like the divine trinity in certain branches of Christianity, on the surface it may seem to make sense, but if you have to give a more detailed explanation, you’re pretty stuck.

            But that’s not a great illustration. After all, it falls apart quicker than most. Because this isn’t a divine force, able to suspend or transcend the very rules it first created. It’s more like how a child relates to a parent. A child is an extension of the parent but still a distinct entity. An extension, yes, but one that still takes on a life of its own.

            Connected but not identical.

            So I guess in this new simile, I’m talking about a family whereas I usually talk about individual members with the occasional callout to the other members of the family when relevant. However, in this case, my review needs to be on the family as an abstract entity because, well, we all have a weird relationship. An impersonal one, yes, but a constant one.

            And sometimes, consistency is all you can ask for.

(Music fades out)

            Hi. It’s M. Welcome to episode 32.

(Music fades in)

            Today, I want to try reviewing the phenomenon known as Pokémon because that’s how I’ve always known it. It’s a card game, television show, video game series, a couple movies…. You know, a flood of content in a lot of different forms. And it’s hard for me to see clear distinctions. The wave washed over me when I was still very much a child, and sure, there’s a conversation to be had about advertising to children and the commercialization of programming aimed at children, but my parents shielded me from so much of that reality that I don’t feel comfortable having that conversation. And yes, part of that shielding was my dad being in a perpetual state of near dying. So nope. Not a part of that dialogue. At all.

            At that age, I took the wave as is. I wasn’t old enough to understand the concept of franchising or a medium and to see the differences. The idea of different storylines and canons was just barely within my grasp, to be completely honest. You see, Pokémon felt like this larger than life entity, commercial or otherwise.

            And this entity consisted of the task of capturing these sometimes small other worldly creatures in order to accomplish one of two things. One, capturing one of each of the many and increasing number of varieties of these creatures. Two, using them in fights to conquer new creatures as well as gyms and Olympic-esque competitions, pushing their little creatures to win until they evolve or faint. Yeah, it doesn’t sound so great when you put it in those terms. But considering it’s a fictional thing with not obvious grounding in reality, you take it as is presented, and—especially in the television show—it’s presented as a harmless thing.

            The action is harmless, and the the underlying relationship is almost noble rather than exploitative. A bond between a Pokémon and its trainer is a powerful one: a kind of teamwork that is unconditional and unbreakable. Also the Pokémon are never seriously hurt, and they certainly don’t die. With the exception of a couple dramatic moments in the television show that are never battle-centric and only done for dramatic purposes. At worst, they faint, and a quick run to the Poké-center or a quick spritz from a potion bottle and everything is fine.

            It’s true for the video games too, from what I can gather. But I mostly stuck with the television show. Like I’ve mentioned before, my parents—especially my dad—felt confident enough in their ability to set up parental blocks that I was allowed to watch television unrestricted once my homework (and the additional worksheets my mom would give me) were done. That’s how I got into Pokémon at first. It was the show, which aired frequently and was quite popular in my school. Cue my mom’s desire to for me to be culturally literate because it caused her to support this interest, however unwise it might have been otherwise. Like I’ve said, I was a shy kid; let’s not make my social deficits any worse.

(Music fades out and new music fades in)

            And the show is about as good as any kid’s show could ever expect to be. It was engrossing and no more condescending than one may expect. But honestly, those can feel like petty complaints. After all, there’s more to any form of media, even and especially one made for kids.

            But I’m not sure what else I might have drawn from Pokémon other than the whole bond between person and what is essentially a pet. Then again, that’s what I was inclined to see. I’d romanticized a relationship like that for quite a while. At this point in my life, my family had gotten a cat. Actually my dad had gotten a cat… One year for his birthday, my mom had told him honestly that she was far too busy to deal with it and that he needed to get his own birthday present. He was notoriously difficult to shop for, even when you consider all the stereotypes out there about shopping for men or for dads. At this suggestion, he felt or feigned a hesitation, only to have her insist he just get what he wanted. And he wanted a cat. So we had a cat.

            To be fair to him, they’d been talking about it for a while. Dad had been a cat lover his whole life, and when they first got married, he had two rescue cats that required constant medication and care. Similar to having a kid, I guess. But despite or because of the work, he felt attached to them. They passed away shortly after I was born, and he took it hard. He wasn’t sure he could ever get another one, though my mom thought it would be good for him. Bringing home Artemis was just speeding up the process.

            I was a cat lover too. Even then. But Artemis had no patience for children or men. He was a rescue, surrendered to the shelter by someone who had moved and couldn’t take him with her. Yes, it was a woman, we were told. A middle aged woman who I imagine was much like my mom. They said she liked him enough, but life happened. And he didn’t fit in this new version of her life.

(Music fades out and new music fades in)

            For one, she was moving to a place that didn’t allow pets. On the other hand, he wasn’t a small kitten anymore. He was a full grown cat with a full grown appetite and other needs. Including a lot of grooming ones. He was a long hair beauty. Largely grey with a white patch on his chest that sat like a shirt underneath a fine coat. He wasn’t exactly a tuxedo cat, but the fine, noble grey made him more handsome.

            Artemis was beautiful, but his fur required frequent grooming. More than daily brushing, and he didn’t like being held. Supposedly, for a cat to like being held, he has to be handled a lot as a kitten. Same thing with brushing and nail clipping. He clearly didn’t have any of that. And so if he saw you even holding the brush, he’d run or nip at your hand if you had already managed to catch him before he could get away. He was a lot of work. And she didn’t think about that when she first took him in. The truth of it all came much later, and he was the one to pay the price when she dropped him off at the shelter, risking his life if my dad hadn’t come along.

            This is largely speculation, of course. While the shelter was open with my dad about what led Artemis into their kennels, I was a kid when we brought him home, so maybe there’s nuance there that I first missed and won’t pick up again. But then again, maybe I don’t matter in all of this.

            Artemis did. And if there was something there for him to understand, he didn’t. For Artemis, he had spent the first year and a half of his life with this woman, and suddenly, she was gone. In his mind, there was no purging her out of his life and no ability to understand how this loyalty could go unreciprocated.

            In some ways, his life wasn’t that extraordinary. Sure it’s a little tragic or disheartening whenever you hear of a pet being cast aside out of convenience. But it happens a lot. Unfortunately. Especially when you consider that impulse pet buying is still a thing. Or gifting a baby whatever to someone who hasn’t carefully considered the time and work commitment and whether or not it fits in their life.

(Music restarts)

            It’s not ideal, and when presented with the facts objectively, we know this is wrong. But it keeps happening. And while this is hard to say, explicit and aggressive animal abuse is still very much a thing.

            And it’s never deserved. After all, Artemis—abandoned by this woman—never stopped thinking about her. Even if he just did it in different ways as his life went on. Latching onto my mother for the type of person she represented. After all, she was never really a pet person, never mind cat person, and sure, you could make a joke about the cat’s difficult nature zeroing in on the person who cares the least, but she did come around to love him as much of the rest of us did, often sneaking him his much coveted table scraps. And still, his devotion to her never wavered.

            If it was just about the challenge, I don’t think he would have lingered at her side as long as he did. To him, there was her and no one else. Not even and especially not me.

            I wanted to give him my love, but until the end of his life, he was not interested in it. And he would never let another domesticated creature enter his domain, so yeah, I was never going to have the pet of my dreams. At least, not until I moved out. But we had made an unspoken promise to him when Dad first opened his carrier: that he’d spend the rest of his life with us. And that wasn’t a bad thing. He was our cat, a part of our family, and like all family members, you take them as they are: flaws and all. Even when you don’t mesh.

(Music fades out and new music fades in)

            There’s a reason I’m talking about Artemis that aren’t related to the new studio cats we’ve got. Though they’ve made me think a lot about him. Midnight in particular acts a lot like his kitty uncle. In fact, if it wasn’t for the geography, it wouldn’t be too hard to convince me that they were related. Distantly, of course, considering their fur length.

You see. Artemis reminded me a lot of Pikachu. TV Pikachu, that is: a creature that showed great reluctance to bond with Ash but came around after a while. Of course, Artemis was not Pikachu. They clearly had different personalities, and Artemis never really did come around to love me. But they were both largely stand-offish at first, refusing the little things that usually bonds them with their person almost in favor of whatever gratification rejection can bring. I mean, spite is pretty great. Not healthy but feels great.

            But television Pikachu came around eventually. Ash wins love and affection by being steadfast in his devotion. Or not devotion. That implies love which rightfully can be hard in the beginning. Maybe obligation is more appropriate. It certainly feels that way.

(Music fades out and new music fades in)

            In the Pokémon universe, ten year old become Pokémon trainers. They leave home with just a backpack and a starter Pokémon in order to explicitly battle other Pokémon and people as they travel far from home. Yeah, bad idea. Do you remember what you were like when you were ten? Never mind that ten year olds don’t have money or a way of reliably making it. Also there’s a certain maturity required for things like problem solving and checking into hotel rooms and cooking. You see a few of these problems in the show, but by writing in Brock or a Brock-like character—a slightly older young person who has had caregiving responsibilities in the past or in some ways has been parent-ified—negates those issues somewhat.

            But forget your genuine concern. That’s the (quote) fantasy element in this show. Fantasy in this context means daydream or desire that isn’t compatible with reality. Because that’s the age when maybe you start to become aware of a wide world of places and possibilities out there that you want to explore but really can’t at this point in your life. You dream of an agency that the rest of the world (blessedly) knows you can’t handle just yet and keeps from you.

            But there’s nothing wrong with dreams, especially ones like these that just naturally overtake you as you progress through life. So why not engage in more dreaming? Or some other sort of vicarious wish fulfillment.

            And that’s what you got with the Pokémon franchise: wish fulfillment for children. A way of holding you over until you could finally get out into the world. By then, hopefully, you’ll be able to handle it, but you’ve played out some of the details or possibilities so many times in your mind that you at least have some sense of direction. That’s what wish-fulfillment fantasies can help you with beyond just a sense of gratification.

            When relevant.

(Music fades out and new music fades in)

            At this point in my life, leaving my home was on the table, but that meant leaving my dad who was sickly but not dying at that point. We still had some time together, but I still had some sort of understanding that my time with him was limited. I’m not sure how I knew. I guess there are things that you can’t hide from children, and believe me, my parents tried.

            But there were different types of wishes a kid could have. Even if they weren’t the most obvious ones.

            I wanted Artemis’s love. Constantly. I wanted him to be my companion, even if he wasn’t willing to give that to me. A child could hope, after all. And it wouldn’t be a child’s fantasy if it wasn’t slightly outlandish.


            And this may initially line up with Ash’s Pikachu, but I think… Well, I think it goes beyond that. Because if it was just about Pikachu then I could just review the show, not the phenomenon. Or franchise more accurately.

(Music fades out and new music fades in)

            Here’s the thing, there’s something about the premise of Pokémon that we don’t talk about. Or it’s not something you’d be inclined to acknowledge within this fantasy. And it’s this: these little beings you bring into your life and battle are going to fail you at some point. Guaranteed because that’s how life worked. Not even just how Pokémon battling the game or the sport—depending on your universe—works. Failing can happen when you fight above your level or without paying enough attention, and that’s going to happen, especially your first time through. And that’s just limiting the variables that are relevant, assuming you can control all relevant factors, which you can’t.

            The simple true is Pokémon fail. They fail despite the commitment you have to pour into them. They need to be caught, and then they need to be trained up and evolved. They get hurt, and you need to heal them up. It’s not the same thing as a pet, sure, but you can’t just charge through the game doing whatever you want. They provide limitations and a conditional pay off. But still you endure.

            Do you have to? Technically no. Especially in the games. The video games. In the numerous television series, these reactive and somewhat living things are harder to get rid of. You recognize the life in it, you make something akin to a social contract, and you are in it come what may. But in the video games, you can cycle through a team, shelving the weak or those who fail you in favor of those who have the best win streak.

            But here’s the thing. Well many things. One, you don’t have to have the same takeaway as someone else. You don’t have to have the same interpretation of every little minutia. Because, two, you may have a very different play style. And three, comparisons don’t have to be perfect.

            On that second point, have you ever done or watched a play through of a Nuzlocke challenge? It’s a way to play a Pokémon game with a bunch of rules meant to increase the difficulty. If you aren’t familiar, the main ones are that you can only catch one Pokémon per area (usually the first one you run into excluding duplicates) and if your Pokémon faints, presume it’s dead and let it go. And it makes for a surprisingly emotional experience, and it’s not just frustration that you feel, but a genuine sense of loss when you miscalculate and loss someone, especially if it was your starter or had been around for almost as long.

            The Nuzlocke challenge brings out what is already there: a sense of attachment and responsibility. They aren’t gone in a normal play through; they are just hard to see through the forest of small creatures figuratively nipping at your ankles. It’s not a matter of distraction but about being spread so thin that it becomes almost transparent. So let me show you what you are struggling to see.

            At some point, you started caring about these digital creatures. You invested your emotions, and that’s okay. Because you’re just as much in it as they are.

(Music fades out and new music fades in)

            The Pokémon battling thing can be morally dubious. I won’t deny what seems obvious. But personally, I can’t put the emphasis on that. Rather, it seems like a means to an end. The end being an illustration of a particularly important point, and the means don’t involve a real creature. So there’s that.

            For both a trainer and their Pokémon, you have to commit. You have to be willing to stick with it to the end despite whatever challenges and hurdles you may face even the ones that come directly from the behaviors of the little creatures in your care. And your commitment in and of itself creates some sense of obligation. It’s not that this creature or those around you are holding you accountable. Or else why would the Nuzlocke challenge be such an emotional thing. After all, those are just pixels in a private game. And cheating is technically still a thing you can do. It invalidates the challenge yes, but that’s not a criminal offense. You’ll get over it. You won’t be the best, but you’ll get over it.

            And that’s part of the message. Which, on the surface is, “to be the best like no one ever was.” It’s not just a sales pitch. But something you can genuinely achieve through your hard work and dedication. An actual end goal in some ways. Throughout the game, you are acting. You are doing. And you have reasons, goals, and desires. That’s here too. With you and your little buddy. Yes, the relationship between you and your Pokémon is intrinsically important but maintaining your end of the bargain should be rewarding in and of itself. Because it is an accomplishment to endure, to stick around despite all the electric shocks.

            There’s a reason we come to like Ash so much as we do despite his whiny attitude. We can tell he did something pretty admirable when he stuck around for Pikachu. And on the other hand, to win a Nuzlocke challenge is to really win at something. We—or those who complete it—feel a sense of accomplishment for completing with so many of our little friends still alive, even if it is with a bit of sadness for what was lost along the way.

            You did something. Even when it got hard.

(Music fades out and new music fades in)

            Artemis died just before I completed my senior year of college. It was sad, but he was getting old. Mom and I knew it was coming. We were just relieved he didn’t suffer.

            And you know what else? He never did love me. Not outwardly. He outwardly tolerated me, but he ignored me if it wasn’t feeding time or if he wasn’t looking for someone to open the door to whatever room Mom was in.

            But there was this moment during my last visit home that I’ll never forget. Mom was at work, and I was home alone with him. Which normally meant he was sleeping in Mom’s bed if he wasn’t begging me for food. And that was fine. I had brushed him that morning, so he really didn’t need to hang around me if he didn’t want to. I was sitting on the living room couch watching television when suddenly he jumped onto my lap and nestled in. It was only for a moment. He licked my hand a couple times before he reverted to not being a lap cat and jumped down with just one last glance back to me before he walked back into the hallway.

            They say cats know when their end is near. So usually they hide. Artemis didn’t hide. His death happened peacefully and likely caught him off guard. He fell asleep in Mom’s shower one day, fitting as it was his favorite place and just didn’t wake up.

            But at this point, when he surprised me with an unexpected dose of affection, he had a few months left out of a very long cat life. And I think he knew that. I mean, the rest of us knew that because logic. So I’ve always thought that this moment—this small break from his normal character—was his way of saying something.

(Music fades out)

            “Goodbye,” he seemed to say. “You know. When it happens. Not yet but yeah… And thank you for sticking with me. Even when I bit at you all those times. Thanks for staying. Or coming back now that, you know, you’ve moved out. Thank you, and good bye.”

            I cried for three days when he died. I didn’t expect to. He wasn’t my cat; he was first my dad’s cat whom he quickly ditched for my mother, but you know... He and I had been on some sort of journey together. Even reluctantly. I missed it. And him. I still do.

            So, Artemis. You’re welcome. I’m glad we had that time together. No matter how much blood you drew. It was still worthwhile to get through it with you. It was a wonderful trip. And thank you.

(New music fades in)

            This has been a production of Miscellany Media Studios. Thanks for listening! If you like what you heard, consider subscribing, we’re on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Player FM, and other players. Find us and transcripts at miscellanymedia.online or on Twitter @miscellanymedia for updates on current and future projects, including Night and Ink. Do you want to maximize your productivity? Do you want to create all the things while balancing your day job and personal wellbeing? Let us sort through the advice found across multiple dimensions and bring you the best and the worst, if it’s funny.