we were all too old for this: a documentary about Pokemon and life

Let me tell you all a story about the summer of 2008.

I was living in St. Cloud, down on my luck, low on funds.  I had just accepted a unique employment opportunity at Spencer’s Gifts in the local mall.

Life wasn’t exactly pouring sunshine down my throat.

My college friends had all moved away, onto bigger and better things.  We still talked and got together occasionally, but mostly I was in a socioeconomic class all on my own.

Well, not entirely.

Meet Glen David.

Exactly as I did.

Glen loved Star Wars, tigers, Mountain Dew, staying up late, sugar, and doing things on an extreme budget.  He instantly became my new best friend.  Never have I met somebody so full of life–even at his drowsiest.  You bounce an idea off Glen David, he’ll at least give it a try.  And he’s as loyal as a bodyguard.

Glen and I had spent a lot of days together, throwing disc and chatting Star Wars.  But I’ll never forget that fateful day I was strolling though Target, saw a pack of Pokemon cards, and made a call to Glen David.

REWIND:  When I was in middle school, my cousin and his girlfriend got me a deck of Pokemon cards.  We sat down and tried to play that day.  I think we got through a single match although, for the life of me, I could not grasp the concept.  There were little glass beads and attacks and coins to flip and poison and burning and multicolored creatures that induced seizures!  I knew I liked something about it, but I never thought I’d play again.  For one thing, I was an only child with not many friends.  For another, I did NOT have the patience to learn the Machiavellian intricacies of Pokemon.  I left the cards–along with my hopes and dreams–at the bottom of my closet.

Summer 2008:  Something was triggered inside me that day in the Target store.  Some nostalgic/arrested development/pre-midlife crisis desire to buy those Pokemon cards, learn to play (for real this time), and settle a score with a younger version of myself.

So I made a call.

                                                                   Glen:  Hello?

              Mikel:  Glen, have you ever played

          the Pokemon card game before?

I don’t remember hearing the ethereal thunderclap–thundershock?–of fate that day, but I have to assume that someone, somewhere winced at the sonic boom of destiny changing forever.

It started with me buying the deck–Diamond and Pearl: Majestic Dawn: Polar Frost–a guy never forgets the first Pokemon deck he chooses.  Next, Glen brought over a shoe box filled with retro cards.  A little dog-eared and battle ravaged, but still a great collection.

Then he designed a deck.

Hold it!  WHAT?!  You can MAKE YOUR OWN DECK?!

My mind was blown.  As pathetic as it sounds now, the idea of using anything but the factory-sealed pre-made theme deck was earth-shattering.  New doors opened!  Glen was a genius!  No way could I ever stop a strategically-designed Glen David original deck.

First time out the gate, I trounced him.  Hard.  We both just sat there, jaws open, ears still ringing from the blast.

What happened?  I had only a casual, passing knowledge of this game and Glen had once been a master.

We quickly realized the problem:  Glen’s cards were too old to compete with my fancy new cards.  With their higher HP (hit points) and stronger attacks, there was no way that the original generation of cards could stand up to the new league.

The solution was simple:  Glen had to get a new, up-t0-date deck pronto.  And I checked online to see what cards I would need to build my ulitmate deck–A Grass-, Water-, Electric-type.

A new addiction was born.

It started quietly enough:  late night runs to Walmart for booster packs.  Battles at the kitchen table when my roommates were asleep.  We weren’t so rich that we could just go out and buy, buy, buy.   There was wanting and wishing.  Talking about pay days weeks away that maybe, just maybe after bills were paid, we could buy that deck.  Get that card.  Win that match.

It gave us purpose.  Gave me purpose.

In the meantime, I was falling in love with the idea of Pokemon.  I’ve said it before–and I know it sounds silly–but there is really something magical about the concept of Pokemon.  The idea of setting out in this world of creatures, making a name for yourself, choosing a “type” that represents you and running with it.  I found I had an affinity for Grass Pokemon–they way they could poison the offending Pokemon, doing damage even after they were Knocked Out, or heal themselves or other Pokemon, prolonging their life.

This will shock none of my friends:  I went beyond a game and took it to the next level.  In hindsight, I may have gotten too into the concept of Pokemon…

I got obsessed with adding Pokemon into pictures of my friends.

Facebook profile pics were never the same again.

I started to think that maybe Pokemon was the key to advertising to an untapped market.

And in the meantime of that meantime, Glen and Mikel’s little hobby was gaining a following.  We found others like us:  Twenty-somethings that were more than a little nostalgic for a game from their past and had way too much free time.  Word got out that the little table in my living room had become a stadium.  The hidden compartments in the benches made for a perfect spot to stash all our decks, damage counters, rulebooks, etc.

Our friends knew we were into something–and they wanted in.

So we rallied the troops.

Jordan was a natural.

He thought of single-card strategies that defied physics.

He dominated with Psychic-types, earning him the nickname…

“Tom Bomb” was a purist.

One type to rule them, one type to catch them all.

His signature attack always hit in the high hundreds.

And we hated him for it.

I personally trained Amber.  She played just this one time.

Justin got to the party a little late, but still caught the tail end of the craze.

He mastered Dialga and his “Time Bellow” attack.

Retroactively earning him the nickname “Justin Time.”

I hadn’t seen Justin since 10th grade at this point.

I don’t want to say it was Pokemon that reunited us, but it certainly helped.

And definitely got us through some rough times.

So along with these characters, their girlfriends, and a few more Poke-fans, we had a little bit of a league going on.  Summer days would be wasted indoors playing this game.  Mass texts would go out near midnight:  BATTLE?  We knew we were ridiculous and way too old for this…but it didn’t matter.  Just for a few t00-brief months, we were The Outsiders of trading card games.  The Brat Pack of classic card nights.  St. Elmo’s Fire with Japanese cartoon characters.

And the next step was obvious to me:  I had to host a tournament.  At the very least, it was an excuse for me to make a graphic.

We gathered in my apartment, with the promise of snacks and prizes.

We brought our best decks.

We had an intricate scoring system.

The scoreboard helped us keep track of said system…

…and also allowed for semi-anonymous trash-talking.

Tensions ran high.

A lot was at stake.

People got emotional.

Queue up this song for the finale.

The tournament lasted a few hours.  Tom Bomb won the whole thing (shocker).  Prizes were doled out.  Booster packs and card-holders.  Goofy little gag gifts that nobody probably has anymore.  Everyone got a copy of the Official Tournament Soundtrack made by me.

It was the peak of our Pokemon battling days.

After that, the craze kind of fizzled out.  Couples broke up.  Moved away.  It got harder and harder to get people together.  The booster packs seemed to be getting more expensive.  I sold my cards at a garage sale.  A collection of cards I probably put hundreds of dollars into went to a kid that happened to be walking by and had $5 in his pocket.

I did keep a few decks, but with no new cards to supplement them, the game grew somewhat stale.  I moved north and taught my cousin’s daughter to play, even MacGyvered her a deck out of some of my spare cards.  But eventually that deck ended up where my very first Pokemon deck ended up:  scattered and tattered.

The other night I was going through a closet and found my decks.  Just had a hankering to play, I guess.  I asked my girlfriend to play, just for old time’s sake.  She had a gently-used deck from when she thought she might get into the game–but she’d given up after a few hands.  I pleaded my case and she sighed and agreed to battle me.

I barely remembered how to play.  Do you start with 6 or 7 cards?  Do Prize Cards get dealt out before or after your hand?  Can you use a Poke-Power from the Bench?  Embarrassingly, I had to consult her copy of the rules–I’d thrown all mine out, obviously.

We played a few rounds.  For her, it cemented that she didn’t really care for the game.

For me, it filled my lungs with a fresh blast of air, sweetly spiced with the fragrances of the past.  Memories erupted with every card I played.  Pangs of guilt that I hadn’t seen Glen or Jordan or Justin in years gnawed at me with every attack I announced.

It reminded me that I survived then with so little.  And now wouldn’t be any different.

So you can roll your eyes at me when I talk about Pokemon.  You can get that glaze of disinterest when I mention a sweet hand I played.    You can make fun of me and tell me to grow up.

But you can never, ever take away what that game meant to me:  a feeling of camaraderie, a sense of belonging, and a group of friends I might’ve never met otherwise.

And on Monday, when I hit up the big city of Duluth to catch up on some supplies and errands, I might just have to stop by the trading card section and check out the latest decks.  Maybe just pick up a booster pack.

One booster pack.

For old times’ sake.

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4 thoughts on “we were all too old for this: a documentary about Pokemon and life

  1. Thank you so much for writing this!!! You have given me much insight into something I am fascinated by and for this I thank you. Have an awesome day and keep on doing what you do!!

  2. Thanks for writing this! I happened upon my old collection (neatly organized in a binder!-only child) when cleaning junk from my parents’ house. I remember I liked to think of trading cards as an underground neighborhood activity. I prized my Japanese cards and holos above all else. A polite invite to play a game would turn into high stakes bargaining after. For some, they only played the videogame I guess. Between the Tv series, movies, and much more, it was truly a magical series growing up.

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