I was at the crazy golf with my wife and her friend, Andrea. We had Junior with us, and Andrea had brought along her own two children. We spent the evening watching the three of them wear each other out, first with water balloons, then with twenty holes punctuated by tiny windmills and a fibreglass giraffe. It wasn't the most eventful evening I've ever had, but it was pleasant enough, and at one point I found myself imagining how terrible it would have been in the company of Dora the Explorer, my previous partner. She would have spent the evening comparing our behaviour against an internal score card delineating her idea of fun, then cajoling us because we weren't having any according to her definition. The crazy golf would conclude with a rant in which she would pose rhetorical questions of why she had bothered, and how next time everybody would have to provide their own fun because she was damned if she would ever again undertake such a thankless task.
The image amused me, although as usual I suffered a pang of conscience, a reflective moment in which I noted that nearly five years later, and still I find myself occasionally framing the present as something wonderful in relation to the tyrannical reign of Dora the Explorer. What does this say about me, I wondered. Have I not moved on?, I might ask myself before recognising this as therapy-speak and therefore meaningless.
Dora wasn't her name by the way, and neither was she an explorer, but she was short in stature with a haircut similar to that of the educational cartoon character, so that's what I'll call her.
Later, after agreeing what a good evening it had been, my wife told me that she too had momentarily imagined the disastrous scenario that would have ensued had her first husband - Junior's father - still been in this particular region of the picture. He would, she suggested, have spent the entire time talking to people on the phone, somehow offending everyone within earshot, and then spent hundreds of dollars on useless crap no-one needed as a means of demarcating the expedition as successful.
It's not that either of us have failed to move on. If anything it's probably a form of gloating, even a celebration, an expression of both disbelief and wonder at the possibly quite nauseating success of a marriage which seems all the more incredible given the complete bullshit we both had to deal with back in the dark times. We both catch ourselves wondering why we once put up with so much; and with this in mind, I can sort of understand the enduring fervour of those who feel that religion has delivered them from an unbearable situation. We're all pinching ourselves just to make certain that this isn't just a wonderful dream
Dora the Explorer's idea of fun was difficult to define. She had a handmade sign pinned on her living room wall made, I believe, on the advice of her life coach, and which stated I am the red light that calls people to stop what they are doing, to come out to play and to have fun. It was in essence a home-made motivational poster, Dora the Explorer doing her best to remind herself of something she wished to believe, namely that people would see her as someone who was fun to be with. Her life coach was some guy with whom she spoke upon the telephone for an hour every Wednesday morning at a rate of something like thirty pounds a session, something between an amateur psychologist and an employment counsellor. As a man earning twenty-five pence every thirty seconds, you would think the life coach might have pointed out the more common implications of red lights, none of which are let your hair down and be yourself.
I was working as a postman in East Dulwich in south-east London, and had been terminally single for a full decade. I've never been the sort of person who needs others around me all the time, but even so I was beginning to develop a bit of a complex. I wasn't getting any younger, and I didn't want to die alone. I told myself this period of solitude was simply the downside of having standards, but the truth is that I could never see the point of seeking a partner purely for the sake of seeking a partner, and I found it difficult to meet people with whom I had much in common.
I'd been delivering mail to Dora the Explorer for a couple of years, and yet had never met her. This was frustrating if only because she ordered quite a lot of backpacks, maps, and of course bananas and PG Tips tea for Boots, the monkey, and always I would have to write out a P739 form and cart the parcel back to the sorting office for collection. When at last I met her, having knocked without much hope of being able to deliver yet another parcel, it was quite a surprise when she answered the door. She wore red silk pyjamas - being in the habit of sleeping in until mid-afternoon - and appeared small and lively and quite cute. She smiled a lot, laughed at my jokes, and directly met my eye, which at the time I failed to recognise as a learned technique. She worked as a market researcher, in other words knocking on the doors of strangers and asking whether they had a few minutes to express opinions on public transport, nationalism, or a particular brand of suppositories depending on who required the statistics that month. In addition she had attended endless self-improvement courses run by a dubious organisation to which I shall refer in a moment. How to engage with strangers could have come from either one of these, but in any case it worked. Random women did not as a rule show much interest in me, or if they did, then I was never able to recognise it as such.
I gleaned from Dora the Explorer's mail that she had an interest in gardening. This seemed like a possible inroad as I was then in the process of transforming my landlord's plot of land from an overgrown first world war trench into something less depressing involving flowers, and as I was essentially making it up as I went along, it seemed like the advice of someone more knowledgeable couldn't hurt. I wrote a letter, trying hard to affect a casual tone whilst idly wondering if Dora the Explorer might find time to drop around to my place - which was only around the corner - and bestow upon me the benefit of her opinion. She phoned me that same evening, saying that she would be happy to offer horticultural advice, and asking would I like to come away with her to Leeds one weekend to attend this amazing course that all her friends had taken. Still reeling from the fact that my letter had done its job, I didn't really notice just how weird this request sounded.
'Well, I er...'
'I think you'll love it,' and she began to ramble on about all the ways in which it had helped her without giving any specifics.
I wondered on what grounds did she believe this poorly-quantified course would be the sort of thing I might appreciate, but still couldn't get beyond the miracle of a woman phoning me up and asking me to run away with her. I was dimly aware of this being sales patter, but I couldn't figure out the angle or what I was being sold, so I said I would think about it.
A few days later, she came around to have a look at what I'd planted. She made suggestions about flowers of certain colours complementing each other, none of which was particularly useful but I didn't care because here was a real live human female who had turned up at my flat and who seemed to like me from what I could tell, and she had boobs and everything. She offered to lend me money so that I could afford the ISA weekend, presuming finance to be the only reason I hadn't leapt at the invitation. I explained that I didn't really understand what she was proposing, and hadn't given it a great deal of thought. In any case, I was off to Mexico in a couple of weeks time, so that had to take priority for the present.
Our next date, and the first which might be termed a date in the sense of being something conducive to eventual sexual intercourse, was dinner, specifically chicken in walnut sauce cooked by myself and served at my flat. It seemed like a bad sign that she was two hours late and it took serious work to save the overcooked meal I'd prepared, but she didn't seem to notice and I was compensated with a tantalising comment about how infrequently her boyfriends had cooked for her in the past. I didn't want to presume that I was therefore about to become her boyfriend, but it was looking good. We talked a little of gardening, parcel delivery, and of course monkey-care, exploring, and what certain Spanish words mean; then we arrived at the revelation of both coming from an art background, and Dora the Explorer had studied at St. Martin's or one of those other prestigious London art schools, although I can no longer recall whether she then told me she had dropped out after six weeks, or whether that was something I discovered later. More startling was the realisation that she had briefly powdered the nuts of a famous member of a well-known industrial rock group - for want of a less ridiculous term - and that I myself knew this person quite well, and was writing to him back during the eighties contemporaneous to Dora exploring the contents of his trousers. The coincidence was staggering - almost certainly a sign that this was meant to be, I decided.
A few more days and a drink at The Woodhouse at the top of Dulwich Hill and we became an item, as they say in celebrity tat publications. A few days after that and I was turning forty in Oaxaca, Mexico with my friend Rob Colson.
I returned to England with armfuls of folky Mexican gifts, fabric, ceramics, traditional dresses and the like. Whilst not unappreciative, Dora the Explorer seemed mildly surprised that we were still together. I guessed she'd been let down many times before, and my trip to Mexico may have been interpreted as a ruse.
Well, we were back on, and Dora the Explorer was keen to know when I would commit to the upcoming ISA weekend. This event - innocuously promoted as the ISA Experience - occurred only a couple of times a year, so there would be a long wait for the next one to come around.
'What is it, exactly?' I asked.
'It's an experience,' she told me. 'You get to meet some great people, and we talk about life and so on. If it's the money, I told you I can lend it to you.'
The weekend would cost a couple of hundred pounds, which was a lot to pay for something that was beginning to sound extremely dubious by virtue of the fact that Dora the Explorer clearly had no intention of revealing just what it was about. Following a hunch, I had a flick through Jean Richie's The Secret World of Cults - an absorbing and informative paperback I had bought a couple of years earlier. It contained no mention of ISA, but there was a list of useful phone numbers in the back. I called the Cult Information Centre on the grounds that it was based in London and spoke to its founder, Ian Haworth, a very helpful man. I explained my situation and my admittedly vague suspicions.
'I'm afraid it's not good news,' he told me. ISA, he explained - standing for the Institute of Self Actualisation - is a therapy cult founded by Ole Larsen, a former student of Erhard Seminar Training as founded by one Werner Erhard, himself a former student of Scientology and practitioner of something called Mind Dynamics. A therapy cult, in case it requires definition, is an organisation which operates through making vulnerable people feel worse about themselves, preying upon and amplifying deepest insecurities whilst demanding money for a series of spurious bullshit self-improvement courses, generally all buzzwords, mumbo jumbo, and low-level mind control. I'd read about therapy cults in Richie's book, and had become familiar with the term. On the positive side, ISA seemed fairly innocuous compared to those groups which would, for example, keep you awake in a dark room for four days straight. Seemingly it would take your money if you had any to give, or it would encourage your ISA colleagues to jolly you into earning money so as to fund further courses, but no-one would follow you around in an unmarked vehicle, and if you were skint, they lost interest after a while.
I was distraught. Happiness had at last sprinkled its magic fairy dust at my door, but it wanted me to buy all twenty-seven volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica and it wasn't taking no for an answer.
Ian Haworth told me not to be too upset, but warned that these things tend not to last much beyond six months. I thanked him and went to work on the belief that whatever was wrong with Dora the Explorer, she would eventually see my example, and notice how I function quite normally without the need of expensive mumbo jumbo; and so she might realise that she too could do the same, and dispense with the psychological crutches.
Autumn turned to winter, and as I was working in the garden, she called me on the mobile telephone we had bought as part of her efforts to bring me forward into the twenty-first century.
'I'll be expecting you to take me to interesting places,' she said. 'I grow easily bored with relationships quite quickly, so you will need to make the effort to keep me interested.'
'Also, I would like you to meet my friend Diego.'
'He needs to talk to you about your involvement with ISA.'
Oh fuck, I thought. Not this shit again. We'd already been there, a drink with some of Dora the Explorer's friends which I had assumed was to be just that, but turned out to be a drink with about twenty or thirty self-actualised drones in a pub in north London.
I walked in and a middle-eastern looking woman pulled the face made by people in Disney films when they learn of the death of a kitten. 'Why won't you come to the ISA experience?'
It was a plea. I had made someone I'd never met have a sad. I hadn't actually said I wouldn't attend an ISA weekend, as I'd busily changed the subject whenever it arose, but obviously this had been subject to discussion amongst Dora the Explorer and her associates.
The evening was awkward. The company wasn't unpleasant, but these were broken people, therapy addicts who would never get enough group hugs, people whose shelves sagged with books about looking deep inside yourself and accepting that you're you. They spoke of success and moving forward and making changes, but it was all hot air, and not one single smile in that room was founded in reality. I was becoming slightly pissed off that Dora the Explorer wasn't letting this go and had brought me here under false pretences, but I'd learned there was no joy to be had in arguing.
Dora the Explorer, who frequently congratulated herself on her elevational levels of acceptitude and caringness and was aknowledgised amongst her peers as an enwarmed and loveingified individuperson, told me that she once had anger issues, but that the ISA Experience had taught her the art of listening to others; so she listened to me then expressed her anger at my stubborn and selfish refusal to meekly comply with her requests, a clear demonstration of how little I respected her beingness. Now she wanted me to meet another of these brainwashed knobs about my involvement with ISA, even though I had neither involvement with ISA nor even the slightest interest. This was supposedly a serious issue despite my own inability to acceptualise it as such, and this meeting felt like the boss would like to see you...
She would always do that: We need to discuss your attitude to work, and then she'd vanish out of the front door leaving me to stew, to wonder how she thought it was okay to talk to anyone in such a way. She could barely open her mouth without it representing some strategy, some definition and seizure of a moral high ground where none previously existed. It was exhausting.
'So when will you be able to meet with Diego?' So far as Dora the Explorer was concerned, the whether was not an issue. This was the power of positivuous enthinkmentation - that which you wanted to happen would happen because you wanted it, and special mental actualisation techniques of maximilitation would ensure that it was so.
I was in her kitchen as she matched specific species of baby animals to their mothers then blinked a few times. I took a deep breath because I was stood before Adolf Hitler, and I was about to tell him that I was both a Jewish homosexual and an African jazz musician.
'I'm not going to meet Diego.'
'I'm not going to meet your friend because I'm not remotely interested in going on one of your ISA weekends.'
'How do you know you're not interested?'
This was one of the weirdest questions I think I'd ever heard. 'I really believe I would know whether or not I was interested.'
'How can you? How can you decide just like that? You don't know anything about the ISA Experience. '
'I know, because I ask but you won't tell me. Can you not see how that might make me just a little suspicious?'
'I can't tell you.'
'Why not? What's the big secret?'
Typically, she was getting angry as through struggling to explain something that would be obvious even to a moron. She didn't seem to be able to understand why anyone would have a problem with her proposal. 'Don't be ridiculous. There isn't any big secret.'
'So why won't you tell me what happens at the ISA Experience?'
'Because you have to do it for yourself. That's the whole point!'
'So I just leap in and keep my fingers crossed for it being something amazing which, for some reason, you won't explain.'
'Yes!' Dora the Explorer's eyes were now popping out of her head. 'Why is that so difficult to understand, Lawrence? Why do you have to be so stubborn?'
'Oh for God's sake,' - I had begun to feel as though I was talking to someone working in a call centre in India. 'I mean just give me a clue at least - is it a lecture? Is it a seminar, or what?'
'It's an Experience.'
'That doesn't even mean anything.'
'You don't understand.'
This was going around in circles. Generally, if somebody has some deal that seems a little stomach churning from where I'm stood - a tendency to vote for UKIP in local elections, a belief in the wrong side having won the second world war, or maybe they're into wife-swapping or whatever - I generally prefer to leave them to it. If their bullshit works for them then fine so long as I don't have to know, and I'll do my best to hold back from pointing out that the king's wardrobe is lacking; but this was too much. I told her that I'd done some research and learned a little about ISA and its founder and the genealogy running back to Erhard Seminar Training.
'It's a therapy cult and you're trying to recruit me,' I told her.
It didn't make any difference, and she went into some half-assed crap about how little I really knew, my selfish and stubborn behaviour, and my failure to keep an open mind - an accusation that is almost always the last resort of a scoundrel; but at least she ceased trying to sign me up.
Ian Haworth was incorrect in so much as the relationship endured for longer than he predicted, but truthfully, six months was where it should have ended. Incredibly, it actually began to deteriorate after that point - it found a way to become even worse - and what few good things there were seemed to happen in spite of the general trend. Dora the Explorer was neither well-balanced nor a happy person. She had been broken a long time ago, and I never really found out how, seeing as her supposedly traumatic upbringing contained neither beatings, nor abuse, nor anything more severe than has occurred in the childhood of anyone I've known, and frankly the rest of us turned out fine. Her mother once left her in the car with a can of pop and a packet of crisps whilst entertaining a boyfriend in the pub, and her father was a bit of an arsehole, but boo hoo - big deal.
Still, had I never encountered Dora the Explorer, or stood mystified for three years as she - a woman who couldn't even cope with getting out of bed before noon and who was thus hardly a poster child for the self-improvement tripe she swallowed hook, line, sinker, rod, and fisherman - explained to me where I was going wrong with my life, I would never have arrived at the circumstances of meeting my wife, and perhaps I would not have appreciated the opportunity so much as I do. Later, as Dora the Explorer and I formally marked our separation with a row at the bus-stop on Dog Kennel Hill, she glared angrily at the ground and said, 'and to think I did so much good work on you, and now some other woman will have all the benefit.'
So here's to you, Dora the Explorer, delusional to the end. You taught me a lot, only none of it was anything you thought you were teaching me.