Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Curse: Figured it Out

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All installments in reverse chronological order

A year ago, I wrote a series of postings describing an extraordinarily strange period of my life that I refer to (with bemused irony) as "The Curse". Way more often than not, new people would have intensely negative and thoroughly inexplicable reactions to me. In my horror, I made myself increasingly quiet, mild, and timid, but that only seemed to make things worse.

I've finally figured it out. It took sixteen years. This was the second hardest mystery I've ever cracked (the first was explained in a series of postings on theology and cosmology, which required forty years of rumination). Like many of the tangly questions I've set myself to answer, the outcome is forehead-slappingly simple.

The closest I'd previously gotten was this (from the second installment of my "Curse" series):
If you've ever played role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, you know about "reaction rolls". Whenever your in-game character meets a stranger, dice are thrown to determine the other person's reaction. Usually, it will be unsurprising. But, every great once in a while, a stranger will want to worship you...or else immediately attack you for no particular reason, even if they're normally peaceful. As in real life, it's a matter of bell curves and edge cases. Well, virtually all my reaction rolls were edge cases.
I failed to mention the essential word: charisma. In Dungeons and Dragons, charisma is defined as "a character's force of personality, persuasiveness, personal magnetism, ability to lead, and physical attractiveness." And it affects all your reaction rolls....just as it does in real life.

Ironically, I've always had charisma. I'm not handsome, and I don't invest sustained attention in my external presentation, so I'm not saying I project a lofty or admirable image. I've never been interested in seeming awesome, and the world has diligently respected this preference. But when circumstances require, some inner faculty ensures that I get what I need. I once nearly missed a flight home from Barcelona airport (traveling on three hours sleep, I'd nodded off in the terminal). The airport's comely security director, who I'd never met, rushed me to my gate, hustled me past the at-gate security check point and through the jetway, and by the time she deposited me in my seat, she and I were in love. I'm not joking.

I'm often given free stuff, special favors, and rule-breaking slack. Not being a psychopath, I'm troubled by my potential for abuse and manipulation, and have worked to avoid anything like that. So whatever juju is behind this, I'm not "working it". It pops up, beyond conscious control, at needful times, and, thank god, it never winds up hurting people or leaving them at a loss. I'm convinced this is because I never reach for it or try to develop it. I simply leave it alone. That's a very strict rule I've set myself. So...I'm a person capable of high charisma who's deliberately opted to wield low charisma.

But about two thirds of the way into the Chowhound era, which is when The Curse first appeared, a confluence of factors led to a further reduction of my charisma:

1. Hiding

It's nice when a million people feel emotionally involved with your operation. But a crowd that size unavoidably includes a few thousand emotionally disturbed emotionally-involved people. Chowhound was never quite a massive national sensation, so I'm not claiming I was, like, Kanye West. But I did get a solid taste of what it feels like when unhealthy people pay you too much attention, and it's not pleasant. I started keeping my private life very private, and playing myself way down among strangers. Charisma drop!

This was also the point where restaurateurs were becoming aware of sensations like Difara Pizza, Kabab Cafe, Sripraphai, The Arepa Lady, Charles' Soulfood, and a number of other previously anonymous places I'd helped bring to wide attention. I'd always protected my food critic anonymity, but my countermeasures needed to escalate. I became ghost-like...which lowered my charisma.

Worst of all, smartphones were appearing, so more people 1. carried cameras around with them and 2. could instantly share photos with large networks of people. I was one social media posting away from being solidly on-radar for a large-ish crowd of people I really wanted to evade. So between the crazies and the restaurateurs and the smartphone cameras, I felt increasing pressure to retract, recede, and blend in with the wallpaper. Charisma: throttled!

2. Not About Me

Few people remember, but Chowhound started out as "Jim Leff, The Chowhound." I was never comfortable with it, and quickly remade the site as a completely non-hierarchical society. My opinions didn't rate higher, and I asked to be treated like just another hound, suppressing any impulse to assert special privilege. Again: lower charisma.

Plus...I'd been asserting myself as a leader in order to manage a few dozen site workers, to serve as spokesman for press, and to recruit the large audience to begin with. I never realized I had leadership skills, but necessity worked its magic and I'd risen to the occasion. In the late stages of Chowhound, and into the transition to CNET's stewardship, I was happily letting that drop like useless weight. As I did so, much of my charisma dropped with it.

3. Vicious Circle

I wrote above:
Way more often than not, people would have intensely negative and thoroughly inexplicable reactions to me. In my horror, I made myself increasingly quiet, mild, and timid, but that only seemed to make things worse.
My shrinking strategy just compounded my negative charisma. As so many of us do, I'd instinctively reached for a solution perfectly designed to worsen the problem (sort of like how people crave the foods they're allergic to). This caused a death spiral.

4. Identity Crisis

Once I'd finally left CNET a year after it had acquired Chowhound, I felt like Frodo returning to the Shire. No one could possibly understand what I'd been through, so I decided to just let myself be the completely random shlumpfy dude I've always conceived myself to be as a child of suburban paneled rec room basements, foosball tables, and Captain Beefheart records (my people are the Howard Stern people; the UPS delivery guys; the frickin' guys who use the word "frickin'" and who eat slice pizza while driving). This wasn't the cliche of my hiding some amazing secret about myself, because I'd found the experience excuriciatingly non-amazing. But while my neighbors had built self-esteem via successful track records as administrative assistants or contractors, I was weirdly larval/neutral. A doofy pizza scarfer blinking vacantly in post traumatic bemusement. Very very low charisma!

5. Spiritual Practice

When the Curse appeared, I was doing a lot of meditation and other spiritual practices which create a sensation of intensity and energy. Worried I might be inadvertently cultivating the juju, I became extra diligent about my non-manipulation rule. This parsed as lower charisma (charisma is manipulation!).

Also, the more spiritual stuff you do, the less selfish you become. When you're no longer primarily serving your own needs and outcomes, charisma can scab over.

6. Middle Aged Settlement

After a lifetime of desperately trying to impress people, I just grew tired of it - and stopped seeing the need for it. I knew what I was good at and what I wasn't. I had an accomplishment I could namedrop, if absolutely necessary, to justify the space I occupy and the air I breathe. And I didn't feel any hunger for external corroboration. This sort of psychological settlement is something a lot of middle aged people undergo, and as any younger, status-obsessed observer would attest, it really lowers a person's charisma.

A little charisma buys you benefit of doubt. A lot of charisma buys you an epic romance amid a ten minute airport security interlude. Zero charisma buys you a spot at the bottom of every ladder and the end of every line. But negative charisma inflames suspicions, fears, derisions, and projections of every possible sort. While charisma creates smiles, anti-charisma invites snarls. The world merely ignores a zero, but it actively persecutes negatives. Anti-charisma is the curse of all curses. careful about letting your charisma drop too low! And if it happens, don't retract and recede. Don't try to relax into this ("letting go" is a fantastically handy and versatile trick, but it's not an all-purpose panacea). Even though it feels like the universe is punishing your assertiveness and commanding you to pull back, that's not it at all. Assert MORE. Push back (friendly, not angry). Gear up, psyche up, hoist up. Light your fire and aggressively thrust your way back to the positive numbers*. It's counterintuitive, but it's the only way to escape the vicious circle and rejoin civilization.

* - Also, don't forget this.

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