As a never-married person, I’ve felt a twinge of anxiety every time we’ve done a wedding issue. I felt the same about a special issue dedicated to pets. Though I’ve lived with and cared for family and friends’ pets, I’ve never had my own. I like cats and dogs, especially cats, and I talk to animals outside of my house more often than I should admit. My pets are the black caterpillar with yellow racing stripes on the porch, the bird that bathes in the dust of the driveway (I call it the plover, but I know it’s not), and the squirrels being squirrelly in the trees.
It’s mainly a lifestyle thing. Pets are financially challenging and time-consuming, and so is culture journalism. I often neglect to feed and care for myself, and it’s not fair to inflict that on a fellow creature. I joked in our edit meeting that the best I could do was to write about virtual pets, which is how I became a Tamagotchi parent three days after my fortieth birthday.
In the late nineties, Japan, already a leading producer of giant monsters, decided that we needed tiny ones in our pockets, too. The world agreed, going mad for Pokémon and Tamagotchi. The former was an adorable handheld game about humans capturing animals and making them fight. The latter was a line of handheld digital pets from toy giant Bandai. It’s a little unnerving that today, you can order one from Amazon in the morning and a sinister gray van will deliver it that night. It shouldn’t be so easy to get something so crazy. Then again, late nineties nostalgia is in full effect, and these are unnerving, crazy times.
My Tamagotchi is a twentieth-anniversary mini edition—a squashed purple egg, an inch and a half lengthwise, with three pink buttons and a small LCD screen the color of dirty seawater. On July 24, at 9:31 a.m., I press a sunken switch with a stick of Nag Champa and an egg springs to life in liquid crystal. After a minute, it hatches a bouncing baby blob, or “Babytchi,” which sounds like a Cardi B song. I decide to call it Everything Bagel Howe.
I wish I could say I was eating an everything bagel, but that’s too bald-faced a lie even for silly journalism. Everything Bagel comes from a list of ridiculous baby names that I’ve joked about over the years with various partners who didn’t want kids, the psychological implications of which are probably better discussed in a professional therapeutic context.
Anyway. Everything Bagel has three states: He’s hungry, he’s in a bad mood, or he’s just chilling. (Somewhere around the christening, it became he.) When he’s hungry, he needs rice, which, for some reason, is represented by an icon that looks like a mushroom. When he’s cranky, he needs candy, which—for an inadvertent good reason I’ll explain later—looks like a hashtag. My care will determine what kind of “Adultchi” he grows up to be, and if he even lives long enough to attain his ultimate “rare” form. It’s comforting that Tamagotchi diminishes death to a state like hunger or having poop near you—reversible, up to a point, with enough vigilance.
I’ve only been a virtual parent for thirty seconds, and already, I have no idea what to do. Though I’ve pored over the manual, I’m not sure how constantly Everything Bagel needs tending to forestall trauma or death. His status icon right now doesn’t really look like food or candy, and I’m freaking out. Peering closer, I decide it’s candy he wants: Quite sensibly, Everything Bagel came into this world pissed. But then I press the wrong button and give him rice. He eats it happily enough, so I give him the candy for dessert, which I think was pretty clutch parenting. Now that he’s satiated, I pocket him, wondering when he’ll need me again. I’ve gotten thirty-seven emails about actual work in the time that I’ve spent on this so far.
At 10:13 a.m., Everything Bagel trills out. Still absorbing the controls, I accidentally give him extra food for the second time. Nevertheless, not thirty minutes later, his mood sours again. Though he’s a Leo, I think he’s really a cuspy Cancer, like me. At 11:12, I have to stop buttering waffles when this heckin’ chonker demands more of everything. I gorge him to shut him up for long enough to eat my cold, unevenly buttered waffles.
At last, at 12:33 p.m., the feeding frenzy has its natural outcome when Everything Bagel poops. He won’t do a thing until I clean away his flyblown scat.
They get old so fast, in more ways than one. On his second day of life, after sleeping for more than twelve hours, Everything Bagel turns from globular baby to duck-billed adult. But he still wants sweets first thing in the morning, and my attentiveness is already sliding into a distracted cycle of feeding, soothing, and feces removal. Two nights in a row, I go out, and by the time I remember to check on him, he’s fallen asleep in his own filth.
This, of course, does nothing good for his breakfast candy addiction.
And me? I’m not great. Caring for an electronic pet does strange things to a person. I keep feeling like I should feed my Switch or clean my drum machine’s litterbox. Whatever initial cathexis I felt when I Slacked the whole paper Everything’s Bagel’s birth video has dissolved into stress and irritation. But not once have I deliberately ignored his cries, partly because I have a martyr-ish streak, partly for a more interesting reason.
I occasionally glimpse something unsettling in pets, an incongruity that hits a little too close to home. It’s weird, these wild creatures, domesticated in climate-controlled environments—but then, what am I? The Tamagotchi has been a similarly unsettling mirror. It’s weird, this virtual monster chirping in my pocket, meaninglessly interlacing with my self-esteem and clamoring for my attention—but then, what is my smartphone?
Everything Bagel changed into an angry-looking orb as I was finishing this story, but I don’t think our relationship is going to go on. It turns out that Tamagotchi was unwittingly preparing kids less for pet ownership or even parenthood than for the worst scourge of social media, the push notification. It’s just like Twitter except it’s terrible and doesn’t do anything, which is to say that it’s just like Twitter. The needs of a real pet are starting to seem like a healthy alternative.
So goodnight, sweet Bagel. To the world, you were just another chunk of Chinese plastic destined for a whirling garbage patch on the ocean. But to me, in the week before I decided you were psychologically toxic and let you die of neglect, you were Everything.
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