When I woke up this morning I realized I was Lester Burnham, nothing more than a cliché of a midlife crisis. What made my realization even worse was that this isn’t even my own midlife crisis but a parody of one from a 1999 movie.
My name is James Roberts. This is my blog; these are my words; this is my life. I am 45 years old; in less than a year I will be dead. Of course I don’t know that yet, and in a way, I was dead already. Or at least I thought I was.
I should explain: Lester Burnham is the protagonist from the 1999 multiple Oscar winning movie, American Beauty. American Beauty is one of those movies that would never be made today. It makes the audience feel uncomfortable, requiring them to think. It gets the audience to ask themselves questions that we’d all rather ignore. American Beauty asks two questions; what is personal identity? and how does society stop us from becoming our authentic selves?
These questions are explored as the viewer follows Lester Burnham, forty-two years old, go through a midlife crisis. Trapped inside a job in which his employer doesn’t value him and he doesn’t care. Surrounded by a family, one daughter and a wife, who he feels value the material belongings he provides more than they value him. At forty-two he’s discovering that his regrets have started to outnumber his dreams.
As screenwriter Alan Ball put it in a 2000 interview, “It’s becoming harder and harder to live an authentic life when we live in a world that seems to focus on appearance.”
Ball’s observation is borne out by the title. Roses are a recurrent symbol in the movie, fulfilling their traditional function of symbolizing all forms of love. American Beauty is the actual name of a specific rose cultivated by Henri Ledéchaux. Ledéchaux’s goal was to recreate a rose with the aesthetic characteristics of an archetypal specimen. In short it looks beautiful, but its fake. A metaphor of the postmodern idyll of middle-class suburban America. In 1999 the internet was still in its infancy, if Ball considered authenticity harder to find then, just where does that leaves us today?
Valium quietens the noise. It also suppresses the pulmonary system making it harder to breathe. Really all it does is substitutes one problem for another, the immutable law of the kinetic energy of suffering. Suffering can neither be created, nor destroyed only converted from one form to another.
I like chess, I’ve played every day for the past decade and I suck. But I still play every day, because whether I suck or not isn’t what matters to me. What’s important to me is that it focuses my mind on one thing. It distracts me from my constant fear and loathing of what is happening in real life. When I’m playing chess, my life is reduced to sixty-four chequered black and white squares. King safety, pawn structure, castle queenside or kingside, open game or closed game, open files, open diagonals, threats, captures, and checks. Sure, playing chess might be a way of me avoiding my responsibilities, so what?
I’m sorry if my train of thought is somewhat incongruous, it’s the ebb and flow of medication. It might even be incoherent, but that’s the effect I’m after, it captures who I am. Syntax, grammar, punctuation are all constraints on human expression. At least that’s what I’ll be telling my students next semester.
Being isolated in a small Thai town, my workplace closed since February due to Covid-19, I was lured into finding entertainment on the internet. As we all know Pornhub’s traffic boomed, as the western world confronted its existential crisis by attempting to masturbate themselves into oblivion. I however received a tweet on my Twitter feed, from a chess player, playing a tournament in Poland. I get a lot of chess tweets, I follow a lot of chess related things, but this tweet stood out from all the others, it was from a girl, a cute chess playing girl. I don’t wish to promote such superficial objectifications, but, this was a cute chess playing girl, with a smile you’d be happy to look at forever.
Covid had restricted my social interactions, I was a forty-five year old wrestling with a midlife crisis; what else was there for me to do other than to start digitally stalking her?
Please note, I never digitally stalked her; firstly, that’s morally reprehensible, no matter how bad a frame of mind you find yourself in; secondly, I lack the internet skills to be able to do it. But, if you are currently stalking someone please get help. Stalking can lead to more serious behaviours, and it ruins lives. Don’t stalk.
I didn’t stalk this girl, of course that’s exactly the the sort of thing a stalker is going to say, but I didn’t. I just clicked the links that were on her Twitter profile and before I knew it, I found myself in the depraved, warped, twisted, egomaniacal world of Twitch.
Twitch is the internet’s answer to Dante’s, Divine Comedy, only not divine or funny. Twitch is what you find at the bottom of the internet and cultural barrels. The psychological motivations that power this platform of self-absorption and egotism make your skin crawl. If you’ve read my blog before you’ll be aware that I’m sceptical of the benefits the internet offers society. When it comes to Twitch, I’m not sceptical, I’m terrified.
But I persisted and watched her stream (I wasn’t stalking). I wanted to learn more about this platform, I wanted to learn more about the cute chess playing girl.
I discovered her name to be Nemo, this did nothing to strengthen her allure. It’s not easy to develop a fantasy for a person named after a cartoon fish. Again, not wishing to judge a person on such a superficial objectification as their name, and having nothing else better to do, I continued to watch Nemo’s stream.
It didn’t take long for me to become aware that Twitch users have a vernacular all of their own, oddly they feel it necessary to add the suffix ‘dge’ at every opportunity. Sad, becomes sadge, mad gets changed to madge, glad – gladge, weird – weirdge, okay –okaydge. I’m sure it’s far more extensive than this, but if I’m honest this unavailing vocabulary is pretty standard for adolescents striving to become independent of their parents, so I don’t give a shitdge.
Despite Twitch being the digital version of an insane asylum, I quickly became captivated by Nemo, real name Qiyu Zhou, a name which scores heavily in a game of Scrabble, but is unpronounceable to anyone outside of China. For those who might be interested, Qiyu Zhou scores twenty -eight points in Scrabble without it being placed on any bonus squares.
I’m comfortable saying flippant, facetious comments, but that tone is inappropriate when talking about Nemo. Why? Because she’s someone I actually have respect for. When I started to watch her stream, it felt like jumping down a rabbit hole of insecurity and vulnerability, whilst trying to cling on to whatever sanity remained. It was a feeling I could relate to.
When it comes to chess, she’s an absolute freak. Watching her solve chess puzzles, is like watching a master painter, paint. She’s elite. But she doesn’t take it all that seriously, instead she wrestles with finding her authentic self. Existential philosopher Martin Heidegger believed that authenticity is achieved by choosing the nature of one’s existence and identity. Existence and identity, the themes covered in American Beauty, the questions Nemo wishes to answer, the questions we’ve all asked ourselves.
Having played chess since the age of three, she takes her ability for granted. I’m certain she can’t remember a time when she wasn’t a chess prodigy (a label she denies). It’s hard for us mortals to comprehend, but maybe excelling at one thing and being known for that, can start to become tiresome. Accepting how lucky she was to have found her calling at such an early age might not be as appealing as it seems to the rest of us. Her feeling this way is understandable, but watching Nemo stream is to watch an exceptionally gifted person trying to runaway from who they are.
She started to play chess at three, at five she won the Finnish under-ten national championship, definitely not a profit, by fourteen she was a junior world champion. They say the strongest steel is forged in the hottest fire, well Nemo has been testing herself at the highest levels from an early age. Whilst on a chessboard she’s nigh unbreakable, as a person she’s all too human.
Nemo’s decision to start streaming chess on Twitch was controversial, much of the criticism motivated out of jealousy. People criticized her for no longer pursuing the game to fulfill her potential. She was accused of selling out. There might be legitimacy to these comments, but this wasn’t their decision to make and not their place to criticise. Her decision to stream was her own, and one I imagine she took a considerable amount of time to come to. When deciding to stream chess she stated she wanted to help promote the game, especially to girls, something she’s having a degree of success with. What makes any reasonable person feel for the girl is the level of abuse that gets thrown at her.
Nemo is the very paragon of politeness. She doesn’t get drawn into political discussion, and is cautious about saying anything divisive or contentious. Her stream is not a forum for polemic discussions, it is after all a chess stream. Despite this she often faces undignified comments, which she always handles with dignity and maintains her poise. It’s her manner more than her chess skills that make her so engaging.
Nemo’s streams aren’t only about chess, she plays poker as well. But Nemo’s streams are more than this, they are the existential narrative of the journey of a young woman trying to understand her identity and where she fits into the world. A woman who’s grown up in a variety of cultures is inevitably going to find it a challenge to understand exactly who she is. What she is though is beguiling, polite, and creative whilst also being vulnerable, uncertain and insecure. How many of us are that different?
I’m forty-five, the students I teach are the same as age as Nemo. Nemo helped replace the interaction with my students when my university was closed due to covid. She provided access to the outside world during lockdown, albeit through the warped, disturbing lens of Twitch.
As a teacher, the bare minimum expected of me is to care about the wellbeing of my students. Now it’s self-evident that Nemo isn’t one of my students, but being the same age, and with her being someone I saw frequently during lockdown, she became the focus of my concern for younger people in the absence of my students.
Nemo concerns her viewers. She’s prone to being consumed by the shadows. She’s said things that have frightened me. She speaks the language of the lost. She doesn’t speak it often, but it’s a language I’m fluent in. She’s enigmatic. Beauty often being an emergent quality of complexity.
Lockdown during covid was a psychological challenge affecting people all over the world. People felt isolated, people became depressed, nobody was spared its inconvenience. Cynics say that Nemo exploited the situation; in reality she provided a service people needed, she helped to spread hope and shared her joy of chess with anyone willing to listen. She isn’t exploitative, she’s a visionary, only she doesn’t understand this.
Twitch sucks. Watching Nemo is a journey. A work in progress. A masterpiece in the making.
Yes, it’s like, The Truman Show.
I apologise for the incoherent nature and the lack of structure of this post. I’m taking a lot of Valium right now and trying to come to terms with the fact that I’ve been stalking a girl less than half my age on the internet. If Lester Burnham had Google, this is what American Beauty might have looked like.
I’m not even capable of having a midlife crisis of my own, only parody one of a fictional character.
You can find more information about Nemo at the links below:
Nemo’s Wikipedia page can be found at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qiyu_Zhou