The Adventures of Rob and Dorrit (the Toyota Echo): The Storm

The Adventures of Rob and Dorrit (the Toyota Echo): The Storm

Vancouver weather is similar to Ireland’s in that it is usually wet as the city is located in a natural rainforest. Locals jokingly call it ‘Raincover’, but I wasn’t laughing last week when Dorrit and I got to spend three and a half hours in crawling traffic as a sudden storm battered the city with high winds and torrential rain.

9:30 am - I teach a morning class out in Surrey once a week and it is a brief thirty-minute drive on the Trans-Canadian Highway (Highway 1). Last week, I headed off as usual and the weather appeared dry and pleasant enough. Sure, there was a nip in the air and it has been getting darker progressively sooner, as we are now well into fall. I got to the school and all was still dry and calm.

12:05pm - After I was finished I jumped into Dorrit and began to head home taking my usual route. To be fair, Google Maps did highlight a delay along the Port Mann bridge of twenty minutes. I could have found a longer route home, but I impatiently started driving away figuring twenty minutes wasn’t that long. I regretted that decision as soon as I came onto the highway. There was a massive tailback and I had no choice but to merge with it as I couldn’t turn around.

1:05pm - The twenty minutes quickly turned into sixty minutes. Thankfully, I had used the toilet before setting off but I was frustrated, hungry and hot after sitting in crawling traffic for so long. I could hear Dorrit’s fan come on at regular intervals to cool the idling engine. Had she not been a Toyota, I would have been worried about overheating and being left stranded on the side of the road. Dorrit doesn’t have any sort of ‘Stop/Start’ technology. I had half a tank of gas and hadn’t been too concerned about it until I found myself sitting in this traffic. I tried turning off the engine and started it again when the traffic began to move and this proved to be even more frustrating. The traffic was crawling slowly, but it was moving and stopping and starting the car constantly could do more harm than good in terms of fuel economy and mechanical wear. All I could do was sit and stew. I remembered that famous scene in ‘King Lear’ where the elderly king ranges at the storm and how it was an exercise in futility.

2:40pm - After two and a half hours I finally reached the epicenter of the tailback. The highway was closed at the junction at Brunette Avenue. TOTALLY CLOSED. Not a single lane was open and this extreme tailback suddenly made sense. The cause turned out to be fallen electricity lines on the road. A storm had been raging in Vancouver all morning apparently. It had drizzled over the last two hours on the highway, but I could see dark storm clouds on the horizon in Vancouver. Traffic was directed off the road and Google tried to put me onto the Lougheed Highway, which by now was also highlighted in red. I didn’t have the time, patience or fuel to sit in more traffic. I had to get the car home and take the train downtown for my evening class which was due to start at 4:30pm. I decided to be brave and hit the suburbs of Burnaby, the city in between Surrey and Vancouver.

3:00pm - I was making good time through Burnaby and following Google Maps for dear life as I had no idea where I was going. I knew the direction I should be heading but the rain was now pouring down. I had the fan on full and the wipers on their top speed. The female navigation voice coming from my phone was drowned out by the rain drenching Dorrit. I was so focused on just getting home that I didn’t really have time to be too worried about the various pedestrians running around, both on the sidewalks and across the busy roads to escape the heavy rain. Rain terrifies me for that very reason. People do stupid things and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to stop suddenly on these wet roads as Dorrit doesn’t have ABS. Drivers in Vancouver also never seem to slow down. It’s crazy. In Ireland, I was taught to reduce speed when it rains, but here people drive at the same speed as when the roads are dry. To not actually cause an accident, I forced myself to keep pace with everyone else.

3:15pm – I was finally on Kingsway, which is a familiar road. I turn off onto Victoria Drive and I know home is a mere five minutes away. I was starving and now needed a toilet. I got to my front door as the rain began to ease. It has just gone 3:20 pm and I have a few minutes to eat and pee before I had to brave the weather again and catch a train downtown. Dorrit had about a quarter tank of gas left and I was grateful to the car for getting me home safe and sound. The storm raged on for the rest of the day and I was walking home in the rain at around 7:30 pm that night.

I have never been in such a bad traffic jam in my life. The M50 tailbacks back home had nothing on the delay I endured. The funny thing is if I had gotten a bus and train home from Surrey I would have missed out on the whole adventure and it also showed me that I have finally begun to settle into driving in Canada. Sitting in Dorrit for that length of time got me accustomed to the sounds and feel of the car in the wet too and that is valuable education as we head into winter.

I just hope the snow holds off for the next few months.


Posted by Robert O'Brien in Blog
The Adventures of Rob and Dorrit (the Toyota Echo): Rolling Podcast

The Adventures of Rob and Dorrit (the Toyota Echo): Rolling Podcast

Being a podcast guest is always exciting and slightly daunting, because every one is its own beast. The tone, content and even variables like time of day can play a part in defining the overall experience. In the past year, I have been privileged to be featured on a number of stuttering podcasts to discuss my memoir and various topics I raise in it. As my experience has grown, I would like to think that I have relaxed and become less focused on selling myself and rather offer my own unique perspective on being a stuttering homosexual.

In July, during my trip home to Ireland, a family member messaged me about a therapist they knew who had a podcast. The podcast was focused on mental health and they were interested in hearing more about my story. Wanting to strike while the iron was hot, I messaged the therapist, a psychologist called Allan Clarke with an introductory email and dropped a copy of my book in the post for him for good measure. As I researched Allan I was intrigued as he is a gamer as well as a highly experienced clinician. Within 24 hours he responded and we agreed to keep in touch and set something up in the near future. Fast forward a month and I am settling back into Vancouver life (with a crazy new work schedule) and he messages me about doing the podcast the following week. This would mean juggling my work schedule and Dorrit would be my mobile podcast platform for the discussion.

I have worked as a ESL teacher (English for foreign speakers) in downtown Vancouver for many years and this has been a short Skytrain trip from my home. But recently, my school had expanded with a second campus opening in Surrey. I found myself giving classes at that location once a week and was a little perplexed when my boss initially offered to collect me at the Skytrain station before my first class. He had obviously forgotten I had a car and I hadn’t volunteered that little nugget of information right away. I wanted to see where in Surrey the school was as it is a big city! It turned out that it is located just off the Trans-Canadian Highway, which is a thirty-minute drive from my house vs. a ninety-minute trip on public transport. I asked if I could do my podcast at this location as it has a better internet connection than I do in my own home and I had to work around the eight-hour time difference.

Thankfully, the answer was ‘yes’ and I was excited. Not only for the podcast, but also because this would give me my first opportunity to test out my new microphone. My friend Rory had gifted me with a rather expensive microphone that he had gotten from an equipment sale. This not only made me feel like a professional but helped me sound like one too. I took him out to dinner to say thank you and told him that I'd be using it on this upcoming podcast. It went into Dorrit's trunk along with a tripod, L.E.D. lights and laptop on the day of recording. I had also packed a shirt and jacket to change into as well as my lunch, some powder make-up and water. It is crazy the amount of preparation that goes into these podcasts and I have learnt to bring everything I might need regardless of if I end up using it or not.

Dorrit and I arrived in Surrey early as I needed time to unpack and set up all my equipment in a back room in the school. The class I was teaching flew by as I was slightly distracted trying to anticipate questions that Allan might ask me. I know there are no right answers as such, but I wanted to sound intelligent and clear in my responses. All Allan had said to me in his email was that it would be an informal conversation but that could mean anything. I ate, changed and waited for 1pm PST (9pm Irish time) for Allan to log on.

The first thing I noticed when we connected was a PlayStation 5 on a shelf in his office. He really was a gamer! We spent about ten minutes before recording talking about games and how fast the PS5 is with its build-in SSD (Solid State Drive). I knew I would like this guy. Unlike other podcasts, this one very much focused on mental health rather than stuttering or writing my book. It was a nice change of subject that allowed me to revisit aspects of the book I hadn't spoken about in a while. He specifically asked me about how I coped in my teenage years with my speech and sexuality. I told him that I avoided life and stated that it was far safer to play videogames and watch sci-fi television than face the outside world. I was very proud of the fact that I could describe the starship Enterprise deck by deck, but I knew that knowledge was hardly going to help me navigate adult life. He asked me about my perspective on suicide and that was definitely more uncomfortable. It was my rock bottom point and that feeling of despair is something I would not wish on anyone. I have learnt to make my peace with it, but it still lingers in the quieter recesses of my mind. I don’t want to make it sound like the conversation was all doom and gloom though. There were lighter points around coming out later in life, my first crush and how the experience of writing my book had ultimately brought me closer to my family and father in particular. We talked for over an hour and a half and I was ready for a cup of tea when we stopped recording.

I had never done a podcast in the afternoon before, and certainly not in between teaching classes. I had to quickly pack up Dorrit and drive home to make my evening class in the downtown school. As I drove back into Vancouver, I could feel the post-podcast high kick in. Driving on the highway was actually rather relaxing. This was in stark contrast to when I started driving a year ago. Reflecting on the podcast, having the correct equipment and a car to transport it in helped make the whole experience feel easy. Being more relaxed and confident in my own responses also felt easier than in the past. Allan was pretty cool too and I hope to collaborate with him again in the future. Finally, getting home in record without having to carry bags on public transport was the icing on the cake. Walking into my house, bags in hand, I looked back at this little Toyota. Dorrit was not flashy or fast, rather unassuming and dependable. I find it reassuring that this is car that is helping me share my story and help others dealing with similar circumstances. That is one of the best feeling the world.

The Podcast I recorded was ‘Straight Talking Mental Health with Allan and Aisling:

Podcast Link on Spotify:

Episode Link:


Twitter link:

Posted by Robert O'Brien in Blog
The Adventures of Rob and Dorrit (the Toyota Echo): My little Grinch heart beats again

The Adventures of Rob and Dorrit (the Toyota Echo): My little Grinch heart beats again

Inspiration is a funny thing in that it can come from the most unexpected places. During my trip home to Ireland last month, my friend Sue proved to be the source of this inspiration for me. Sue and I met over two decades ago and she became known as the girl I let sleep on my bedroom floor rather than offering her my bed when she was forced to crash in my parent’s house. I was young and admittedly stupid and I have never lived it down. Sue reminded me of this very fact as I was touring her new home, with its lovely well-furnished bedrooms. I hadn’t seen her in about seven years and the last time we spent time together, she had just bought her first house and met a new man. Now, she was about to get married to the same man (who is tall, dark and handsome (with a hint of grey) and they have already created a great life together. Sue seemed happier and more content than I had ever known her to be and this really did inspire me.

In contrast, I had spent years working hard trying to fix myself and the idea of deserving is still something I wrestle with to this day. Deserving that good job, deserving that nice boyfriend, deserving to be at ease in my own skin. The list goes on. Yet, I could see in my friend that she had struggled with this and come out the other side a happy soon-to-be-married human. Sue told me to sit down and make a list of things I wanted. With a cup of tea in hand, I began to write. The obvious PlayStation 5 and Porsche 991.2 Touring (in racing yellow) occupied the top spots on my list. As I continued to jot down notes, being at ease with myself, a rewarding career and a romantic relationship appeared. Feeling suitably inspired, I turned on two dormant dating apps I had on my phone. I decided that looking for a romantic relationship was the easiest place to start. I had played the field in Vancouver years ago, I might as well see what Ireland had to offer. Not much as it would turn out, I didn’t even manage to score a coffee date, but I did try to stay open and optimistic. Faith, Sue assured me was vital on this journey. My optimism remained as I landed in Vancouver and was messaged the very next morning by a guy called ‘Jake’. We texted back and forth for the next 24 hours, which in itself was a result, then ‘Jake’ suggested we meet up the next day. It felt a little fast but meeting face-to-face is the best way to see if there are any sparks and I wasn’t getting any younger.

The weather in Vancouver was roasting as summer was in full swing. Thankfully Rory had collected me from the airport in Dorrit and I had the car sitting outside the house on the day of my date. Dorrit has air conditioning and the car was the coolest place I had access to. I hadn’t had time to wash her and she was filthy. Under Rory’s watchful eye, a pigeon had taken a shine to Dorrit and proceeded to poop all over her. I drove to my coffee date but hide the car around the corner. A dirty car would be a red flag for me and I didn’t want ‘Jake’ to assume I was a lazy owner. Best foot forward and all that. We met and he was nice and very self-assured. He had just moved to Vancouver from Toronto and was checking out the dating scene himself. He was a professional and obviously well off. He worked long hours and loved what he did. He was a big personality, possibly bigger than I would like to live with on a daily basis. I had to give him credit though because like Sue, he seemed to be very comfortable in his own skin and he knew exactly what he wanted from life. That turned out not to be me. After an hour, we parted ways and I drove home in the comfort of a cool car cabin. I sent him a thank you text and said if he wanted to hang out again that I would be game. His response was short and honest. He enjoyed our conversation but didn’t think it was a match. I won’t lie, I did feel a little bruised. Not so much at his response but rather the fact that I had felt excited to go on a date only to be almost instantly disappointed. Part of me wanted to delete the dating apps straight away and stay alone on the shelf. But, that was not what I wanted.

What I didn’t want to do was to wallow in self-pity. Coach Nina rang me and asked how it went and I told her the whole story. (Coach Nina is a very important person in my life who originally gave me Dorrit. See previous blogs to learn more). She was having trouble with a flat tyre and I saw this as an opportunity to go and help a friend in need. She suggested I could wash Dorrit at her place and we could kill two birds with one stone. That is exactly what we did. Nina’s building had a washing bay with high-pressure hoses. Dorrit was washed and dried within thirty minutes. I even got to vacuum and wipe down the interior. That feeling of driving a clean car is wonderful and I was starting to feel less bruised. It felt great to be of service and help Nina deal with her tyre. I knew she was worried about driving on it and she wanted someone to come with her in case anything happened. She drove cautiously to the gas station two blocks away and we were both stumped standing dumb founded at the air pump. They operate very differently in Canada compared to Ireland. They do not have a pressure gauge, rather a ruler-like measure that pops out of the base of the hose attachment that shows the current pressure. I had never seen anything like it and would never have figured it out myself if I had I been forced to deal with it alone. Eventually, we succeeded in getting air into the tyre and I collected Dorrit and drove home. Reflecting on the day, I was feeling better. I had taken action in creating a new relationship, cleaned my dirty car and had been a good friend.

I proudly told Amy (Amy is another close friend in Vancouver) all this news over dinner and she laughed in my face. She asked if my little Grinch heart had started to beat again. Humour aside, I had to tell her that it had and I think that is a good thing. She asked to see a photo of ‘Jake’ and I gave her my phone. She said he looked handsome but that his smile wasn’t a real smile. A real smile? What does that mean I asked her. She said he seemed to be putting on a smile because there were no laughter lines. I would like to think I am a good judge of people and photos but hearing this and after having gone on a date with him, I could see she had a point. To that end, I have promised to have her screen any possible husbands before we make it to the coffee shop.

Amy wasn’t wrong about my Grinch heart. I have become jaded and syndical over the last few years. I know with Covid and everything else, many people are in the same boat. I enjoy being surly to a certain extend. Being the cynical one has an appealing edginess to it, while at the same time keeps people from getting too close. The annoying thing is that it seems things only begin to change for the better when you actually let people in. I have heard all that before and even tried to let people in and be more ‘happy’ and easy going. I can see that this is all a choice and a state of mind and thankfully, I am still inspired to try and see where it all leads me.

A huge thank you this month to Sue for being my muse.
Thanks to Rory for keeping Dorrit safe.
Thanks to Nina and Amy for putting up with me! I know it is not easy.
Thanks to 'Jake' for the coffee and a nice conversation.

Posted by Robert O'Brien in Blog
The Adventures of Rob and Dorrit (the Toyota Echo): Costal breathing in Cork

The Adventures of Rob and Dorrit (the Toyota Echo): Costal breathing in Cork

After a week with Sparky the all-electric Kona, I found myself jumping between two of my father’s cars. One was a ‘classic’ E38 7-series (silver car)  that I hadn’t driven in years and the other was a much more contemporary F13 6-series (blue car). It was a fascinating experience in terms of comparing twenty-five years of luxury car development from BMW. The 7-series is built like a tank, everything from the heavy doors to the slightly hesitant steering. I got comments about the car being lovely everywhere I went. Seriously, from buying milk at the local petrol station to the gym, men would stop me and start up conversations about the car. The only terrifying thing about driving it was the economy. I swear you could literally see the fuel gauge moving towards empty in everyday traffic. If you think fuel prices are high in Canada, they are even higher in Ireland.

The 6-series was a surprise to me. I have very little experience of driving ‘modern’ BMWs. Technically, it is a generation behind the latest models but it still benefits from a lot of modern technology such as parking sensors, different driving modes and has a twin turbo 3-litre diesel engine, which is more efficient than I would have ever imagined. I had forgotten that BMW’s middle name is ‘Motor’ and this B57 engine really is a gem of a unit. On a full tank the car had a displayed range of close to 1,000 km! But where the 7-series felt heavy this car was immediate in its steering and responses. The Gran Coupe shape is also achingly elegant and in my opinion BMW’s best design in recent years. I felt like king driving both cars around Dublin. This was one of the high points to my trip home.

Another high point was an opportunity to drive to Cork (in the 6-series due to its economy) and attend my first McGuire Programme course in fifteen years. For anyone who doesn’t know, I stutter and the McGuire Programme is a course for people who stutter instructed by people who stutter. I attended my first course in February 2003 and I go into a lot of depth about that experience in my book. I learnt a new technique of breathing and speaking. Basically to breathe from my costal diaphragm, like singers and performers do. It sounds a little strange and takes time to learn, but I know from experience it works. It helped to reduce a lot of my fear when it came to talking. More to the point, doing this first course introduced me to other people who stutter. I had always thought I was the only one. Looking back now, those people became another family to me because they understood me in a very particular and personal way. So, to be able to go back after all this time was very much like coming home again. An old friend had put in a good word for me and I was given the opportunity to make a ten-minute presentation to the room towards the end of the first day of this three-day course.

I set off in the 6-series to Clonmel to crash with my sister and spend the night in her house before setting off to Cork early the next morning. The 6-series was an exemplary cruising companion thanks to that big engine. I arrived in Cork at midday and found parking before heading to the venue. McGuire programme courses are normally run in large hotel rooms, with chairs in rows and people wear belts on their chests to help them learn the costal breathing technique. I was briefly greeted by the regional director and course instructor before I sat down. Immediately I felt like I had been transported back in time. The sound and rhythm of my breathing. The pressure of the belt on my chest. The slightly awkward situation of having to maintain eye contact with a fellow participant sitting directly opposite me. As the hours passed, I listened to the instructor and repeated the various lists that I had thought long forgotten. It was just like riding a bike, it was muscle memory and I couldn’t have been happier.

That is rather ironic because after attending my first course in 2003, I became obsessed with my technique and the McGuire programme in general. I attended all the weekly support meetings and even became a coach to help with their speech. It was through this programme that I had the courage to get a diploma in TV presentation and joined Toastmasters (a well-known public speaking organization). But over time, that relationship began to sour. I slowly began to feel trapped by the technique. I assumed I had outgrown the programme and by the time I moved to Vancouver to train as an actor, I was even secretly holding on to some resentmnet. That is a difficult admission for me to make. Rest assured, my hubris was beaten out of me after I failed to make it as an actor because I simply couldn’t compete on that level. It took me years to accept that there is a place in my life to be someone living with a stutter and not be controlled by it or constantly try to 'fix' it. That is what I ended up shared in my presentation. It went very well. I had prepared and practiced it and I had the freedom to use my technique without restraint. Despite never acting professionally, the skills I learnt helped me to become an effective public speaker. Things did not work out how I imaged, but it wasn't a waste of time or effort.

I didn’t get back to the car until 11 pm. I could only stay a day as I was due to give a podcast in Dublin the next morning. I was physically and emotionally exhausted but driving the 6-series back to Clonmel was effortless. After a good night’s sleep, I left early in the morning and got to really enjoy the car. With the radio playing, the air conditioning blowing and the car cruising, I felt totally free and at ease in my own skin. Just like I had all those years ago in February 2003.

Next Month: Back to Vancouver

Posted by Robert O'Brien in Blog
The Adventures of Rob and Dorrit (the Toyota Echo): Sparky: The other vehicle

The Adventures of Rob and Dorrit (the Toyota Echo): Sparky: The other vehicle

At the beginning of June, I was concerned about Dorrit. For the last six months, I knew I was going to be travelling home to Dublin for four weeks. I am sure the car would be safe enough outside my Vancouver abode, but a month is a long time. Thankfully, my friend Rory (from the Ikea blog episode) stepped up and offered me a parking space in his apartment complex. I was relieved and felt like a pet owner knowing his/her best friend was safe.

As my departure date grew closer, I was excited thinking about being home and seeing family and friends for the first time in nearly three years. I was also expecting to be able to drive my car back home, a late-build R53 MINI Cooper S. Like Dorrit, the MINI is a small car but unlike Dorrit, it is a sporty, hard-riding hatch with a supercharged 1.6 litre engine. This makes the MINI very fast, but also very thirsty. If Dorrit is like the nice girl you can bring home to your mother, the MINI is the wild pole dancer who you know is going to break your heart and bank account without any remorse.

You can imagine my surprise and disappointment when I flew into Dublin to discovered the MINI was in a dealership in Cork being serviced. There was a cornucopia of vehicles in my parent’s house ranging from a pick-up truck to a sleek F-13 6-series for me to borrow over my vacation. All these cars belonged to various family members and it was ultimately my brother-in-law’s all-electric Hyundai Kona that I found myself driving almost exclusively. Full disclosure here, I have never been too excited about electric cars. They have always struck me as one trick ponies. The instant acceleration and torque is addicting but after the thrill wears off, you are left with what I see as an efficient mobility device. Was this white Hyundai which I called “Sparky” for the obvious reasons going to convince me otherwise?

Coming home is never easy or stress free and this longer trip was a working holiday. I was planning an official Irish launch for my book along with joining a gym and getting an Irish SIM card to save on international roaming charges. I was given the keys to Sparky along with a quick tutorial on the gearing and after a few minutes of acclimatization, I was bonding with this car. Like Dorrit, it was designed to be effortless. Unlike Dorrit, it had a lot of new technology I had never used. Simple things like using Apple Car Play and reversing cameras to brake regeneration and fast charging. In the city, this type of vehicle makes sense. There is instant torque and acceleration and a cool sci-fi like whoosh as the car is in motion. I will admit to loving that. It was so easy and inoffensive, I was totally relaxed and cool (as Sparky has full climate control too) at the end of the day with all my errands completed I could understand the appeal of this type of car.

The next day highlighted some of the limitations. I was drafted into driving to Clonmel to collect my sister’s two dogs and bring them up to Dublin for a christening. This was a two-hour journey. Electric cars are wonderful in the city where they can regenerate battery charge but much weaker on motorways cruising at higher speeds for extended periods of time. Sparky was ready to go having been left charging overnight. I was given very strict instructions on dealing with both the car and dogs. Sparky would need to be fully charged again before I made the return trip to Dublin at the only rapid charger in Clonmel. Finding this charger was like a treasure hunt, even with Google Maps and I was unsure if it would even be available. Luckily when I arrived in the town and found the charger, it was free. I quickly plugged the car in and went to find a café, as even with the rapid charger I was looking at a two-hour wait.

Once the car and I were fully recharged I collected the two dogs and treated them like precious cargo on the return trip. The car made it back to Dublin with 50% charge or approximately 250 km range remaining. I didn’t have time to do anything other than throw the dogs in the house and leave them at the mercy of my mother and young niece and nephew before travelling into Dublin city centre for an important meeting. It was the last place I wanted to go, especially at around 3pm when traffic is beginning to get heavy. I was nervous about the range not knowing Sparky all that well and there would be nowhere to charge the car. Like in Vancouver, I placed my life into the hands of Google Maps as it had more up-to-date knowledge of Dublin’s roads. I turned off the air conditioning and set the battery to fully regeneration and drove off as gently as possible. I arrived at the hotel for my meeting with 45% range left and afterwards I drove home to be presented with 40% remaining range. I plugged Sparky in for the night and by the morning the battery was back to 100% (425 km range).

What have I learnt? Well, I can totally see the appeal of electric vehicles, especially in the city. If you are only travelling to the shops, gym and running errands, they are wonderful and so easy to drive. You need a proper home charging system though, and be more strategic in your planning of longer trips. It all costs money too and apart from the rather soulless nature of these cars, I do have a concern about longevity and resale value. We are all essentially beta testing battery technology and I remain to be convinced about these cars as safe long-term purchases. If anything, I think hybrid cars are the best compromise right now. Having both an internal combustion engine and electric motor gives you the best of both worlds and a degree of flexibility that poor Sparky can’t match. Yet.


Next Month: Costal breathing in Cork

Posted by Robert O'Brien in Blog
The Adventures of Rob and Dorrit (the Toyota Echo): Midnight Pizza and the MRI

The Adventures of Rob and Dorrit (the Toyota Echo): Midnight Pizza and the MRI

Mere weeks after getting Dorrit back on the road, she was due for her first service under my ownership. It was ‘only’ a regularly scheduled oil service. Still, that did not put me at ease. It is like going to the shop for some milk and coming home with a car full of groceries or worse, going to the doctor for a regular check up and coming home with cancer. I knew the car was in good condition, but how would I know if it had a cracked cylinder head or some other catastrophically expensive repair bill.

I booked the car into my local garage and waited for the mechanic to call. Thankfully the car was in good shape, needing only oil and new wipers. I asked them to re-align the headlights as the car had been effectively cross-eyed since the right headlight unit was replaced after the accident damage. I was told the battery was weak and would need changing at some point and I left the car on its winter tires rather than buying summer tires. I will change to all-season tires when the time comes. The final bill came to an affordable $200. Having the car has been a great freedom as I have stated many times in this blog before, but I wasn’t driving every day and I did wonder if it was all worth it.

Over the same week, I was due to attend two day-long Zoom conferences. One was a mental health conference on the Friday and the second was a global 24-hour stuttering conference on Saturday, which I was presenting at. The stuttering conference didn’t finish until 11:25pm (PST) and I had been sitting looking at a screen for two days straight. It was late and I was starving. I hadn’t gone shopping and as a rule, I do not order food as I know it will become a bad habit. My stomach was not agreeing with me growling away. I was still hyper after the conferences and knew I probably wouldn’t just drop off to sleep. I looked at my key rack and saw Dorrit’s key. F**k it I thought to myself. I can work it off in the gym tomorrow. I jumped into the car, drove to the closest pizza takeaway and was back home with food and a cup of tea in my hand within fifteen minutes and before the clock struck midnight. The freedom and ease in that moment was more than worth the $200 oil service.

Having a car also means people may need you to collect them from time to time. Such a request came from my friend Amy who was getting an MRI in Vancouver General Hospital. She was told to get someone to collect her as she was having a medical procedure and would be in no condition to get herself home, even by taxi or Uber. Now Amy and I have a funny friendship. Like other people I have written about (Nina, Rob and Darla) Amy is yet another Landmark friend. I met her on the first day of the Landmark Forum, our first course. We were two clueless eejits sitting beside each other and we decided to go to lunch together. We had an hour and a half for lunch but we got confused and thought we were late after only 45 minutes. I was in panic mode sprinting away from Amy. I didn’t want to get into trouble or look bad getting back to the course late. Amy just laughed and walked slowly behind me. I got back to the Landmark centre sweating and panting when I realized the room was empty and we still had 45 minutes left for lunch. Amy arrived five minutes after me cool and calm still laughing at me for leaving her behind! That incident was to define our friendship and I know there is a lesson in there somewhere for me to learn. I’ll be honest, it annoys the crap out of me. Where I am high strung and dramatic, she seems to be calm and takes things in her stride.

The MRI proved this point. If I was getting a routine scan for arthritis, I would be catastrophizing cancer and an imminent painful death. Not Amy. When I went to pick her up at 9:30pm, I was expecting her to be drugged off her face, but she was pretty steady. They had only given her a mild sedative and she was more than happy to get into Dorrit and be driven away. I joked with her that she was risking her life as it was a pissing rain and pitch black outside. I had worked out possible routes home before collecting her, but I still relied on Google Maps. I was more than grateful for the new wipers and headlight alignment as I could see the road ahead. It was now 10pm so the roads were not crazy busy as we drove further into downtown Vancouver. I was surprised when I got Amy to her door within only fifteen minutes! She was home safe and it felt great to be able to get her there quickly and dry. I got myself home in less than ten minutes too. I couldn’t believe how quickly the whole journey had taken. I had done it all within an hour. Walking and talking public transport would have taken at least twice as long and we would have been soaked.

I have gotten so used to not driving here in Canada that this time saving came as a revelation too me. I’m sure I felt the same way back in Dublin when I was let loose on the roads in my first car, a bright orange classic Mini City. I used to feel embarrassed driving that car as I looked like a young Mr. Bean! I was in a hurry to graduate to a bigger more adult vehicle and I would measure my self-worth against that car. A rather dangerous and short sighted way of thinking as there is always someone with a better car. I don’t feel that way now and in many ways Dorrit is the perfect car for me. She is a typical ‘granny’ car and could pass as an abandoned vehicle when dirty. None of that matters and the fact that I no longer feel the need to compete with every car I see brings a lot of freedom and ease. Which allows me to travel quickly around Vancouver and help my friends. That is certainly worth a $200 oil service.


Next Month: Sparky: The Other Vehicle.

Posted by Robert O'Brien in Blog
The Adventures of Rob and Dorrit (the Toyota Echo): Darla, the Big Gun

The Adventures of Rob and Dorrit (the Toyota Echo): Darla, the Big Gun

NOTE: This blog entry is a direct continuation from last month's 'Dead Stop Dorrit'

When I think of the term 'big gun' the image of the USS DEFIANT (NX-74205) comes to mind. As any geek worth his or her salt knows, the Defiant is a starship featured on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine from the third season onwards and it is the Federations first dedicated warship. It is small with a crew of fifty, a massively over-powered warp engine and shield grid with a pair of pulse phasers strapped to either side of the hull. My cousin Dean and I as teenage boys nearly lost our minds the first time we saw it fire those weapons in anger. (See the image below). In short, you mess with this ship, at best you get hurt, at worst, you die. When I referred to my friend Darla as a big gun, I do envisage her as being Defiant-like in the sense that she works in car insurance and is VERY good at what she does. So good in fact, that I felt slightly bad for poor Ethan as he was going to be her first target!

Like most of my social circle I met Darla a few years back on the Landmark Team Management and Leadership Program. We spent two years going through the training together and because she lives outside of British Columbia she had the good fortune to stay on my couch whenever she needed a place to crash. We bonded over long chats and cups of tea and I have told her that there must be some Irish blood in her as we share a similar (dirty) sense of humour. Even after the training finished, we have kept in touch having a weekly call together. When she heard about Dorrit’s woes she asked me why I had not reached out to her. Part of me didn’t think to ask her as she lives in another province and another part of me thought it would be easier to stay quiet and smile. As I discovered in last month's blog, it wasn’t. It was eating me up and so I told her the whole story. She listened patiently to the convoluted events and said finally that the car should have been assessed regardless of what Ethan said. She asked for his number and told me that I had to have her assigned to my claim so she could deal with it directly. The wheels were in motion.

Dorrit, for her part, was repaired and the unpainted bonnet looked ok. In direct sunlight, you could see it was unpainted but the car was road legal again. I went for a short drive and noticed a stone chip in the windshield. After less than a week of being repaired, I couldn’t believe it. Was this car cursed? From my own insurance research, I knew that stone chips were covered on my policy as long as they could be sealed. Without telling Darla I jumped into action, afraid that the stone chip would become a crack that would definitely mean getting a new windshield and ANOTHER insurance claim. I booked the appointment to have the chip sealed first thing that Saturday morning and after dealing with Ethan, I was going into this situation with my own phasers and shields fully powered up. I was not going to be taken for a fool again. The guy at the shop looked at the chip and said it probably wouldn’t seal. I insisted he at least try. I was standing around for about fifty minutes before Dorrit appeared again with the stone chip sealed. There was a mark but one I could live with. The paperwork was processed and I drove home feeling very proud of myself.

Darla did talk to Ethan and she described it as a battle. He was apparently trying to tell her how to do her job! This was all done over the phone and I wondered how it would have been had they met face-to-face! I felt better hearing that though as it wasn’t necessarily just a case of me being naïve and foolish. Ethan could play me as an inexperienced punter, but not Darla. As Ethan never processed Dorrit’s assessment there was very little paperwork to deal with. Darla told me to upload all the photos and receipts I had to the online claims website. She was going to talk to ICBC on my behalf and felt confident that I would get some money back. A week passed and I got an email from an insurance representative stating that ICBC would reimburse me. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t pay to paint the bonnet as that would mean dismantling the whole front end again and they only pay for such repairs once. Darla and myself mused at the idea of going after Ethan to paint the bonnet but it would be rather more difficult. Ultimately, I was no longer out of pocket and could live with the end result.

Money aside, I had taken action and asked for help. In the grand scheme of things that was a more important result. Even after everything, I still notice that I am hesitant to ask for help so I am a work in progress. The biggest win for me was being able to phone my father and sister and tell them that my neighbour paid. That was worth more than anything else. I could stand tall and not feel like I had been weak or stupid in the eyes of my family.

Naturally, I thanked Darla and sent her flowers for all she had done. She claims it was nothing but having someone on my side who is knowledgeable in this area saved me so much time, money and stress. In this story, she really was my 'big gun' and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Darla, Thank you.

Next Month: Midnight Pizza and the MRI.

USS Defiant Image sourced from Memory Beta (non-canon Star Trek Wiki):


Posted by Robert O'Brien in Blog
The Adventures of Rob and Dorrit (the Toyota Echo): Dead Stop Dorrit

The Adventures of Rob and Dorrit (the Toyota Echo): Dead Stop Dorrit

A few months ago, I was asked to write a piece on bullying to mark Pink Shirt Day. I did not focus on the bullying itself, rather the effects it had on me growing up. I learnt to be a very timid person who always tried to be nice to everyone (even the bullies), at the expense of my own well-being. I would like to think that I had outgrown that behaviour so it came as a shock to discover otherwise when I found Dorrit damaged outside my house as I was leaving for work. Approaching the car, I saw a huge dent in the bonnet and a cracked headlight. It is illegal to drive a car with a broken headlight in Ireland, regardless if it still works or not. I assumed Canada had a similar law. This was the very thing I had worried about when I decided to take the car from Nina and my old bullied victim persona was immediately there to taunt me.

“I told you so” he said. “I told you that if you took on having a car, this was bound to happen. Bad things ALWAYS do”.

That evening I returned to find a note on the Dorrit’s windshield. It was from the guilty party, who turned out to be my neighbour’s mother. She took full responsibility for the damage and had already contacted ICBC (Canadian Insurance). Both Rory and Nina told me to phone ICBC as well to ensure the claim was correctly made and being processed. I was told to take the car to an approved car bodyshop to have the damage assessed. Provided the damage did not exceed the market value of the car, it would be repaired. Everything seemed to be going well and that made me more nervous. As my bullied victim persona knew, things are never easy and I should always expect the worst.

What if they don’t fix the car! You know it is worth around $1,000 dollars and I KNOW there is a lot of damage.”

I had forgotten how normal this kind of inner dialogue was for me growing up. The sheer terror of everyday life. Would I stutter and be targeted today? Would the bullies be lurking around the school corridors waiting to pounce? Were my friends around to protect me? This behaviour kept me meek and unassuming for years, but the payoff was I thought it was keeping me safe from a dangerous world.

I found a bodyshop literally five minutes from my home, phoned them and made an appointment yet I couldn’t shake the fear of the damage being more than the car was worth. I was working myself into a panic over the whole situation. Arriving at the shop, I was greeted by Ethan (not his real name). He came outside with his camera and other equipment. He took a few photos and casually inspected the damage. He said given the damage and the value of the car that it wouldn’t be repaired and that there was no point in submitting a claim.

“See. I told you. Loser.” laughed the bullied victim persona voice in my head.

Ethan was younger than me. I’d say about ten years younger and he was an attractive man. I was already feeling intimidated. He was also the expert and I assumed he could accurately assess damage on visual inspection alone. Yet, something in my gut didn’t feel right. I wanted to push and have the car assessed regardless. That would make the most sense. But, like the bullied boy I used to be, I defaulted to my learnt defense. I was nice about it and didn’t push Ethan on this. Rather, I asked what other options did I have.

He said that the car would be scrapped and I could get the cash value or he could repair it off the books and I could go after my neighbour to pay. Having a car was a great freedom and I felt somewhat obliged to keep it. What would I blog about if Dorrit was gone? That is how I justified my decision to myself and I went ahead with the work, which would cost around $700 with an unpainted bonnet (painting cost an additional $650). I didn’t want to inconvenience Ethan further and he assured me the bonnet would look ok as the car is black.

I wanted to be considerate of my neighbour as well and confront her with the lowest bill possible. She turned out to be an older woman with a small pension. She told me a sad story about being poor and said she could only offer me $150 in cash as a contribution. Legally, she was under no obligation to pay anything. Like with Ethan, I wanted to push harder as I suspected she was lying and taking me for a fool. It was easier for me to play the victim as it was a role that felt familiar, rather than the ‘bad guy’ who would have been more assertive and $700 dollars richer! I was disappointed in myself because deep down I knew the truth. I was too scared to push back, just like when I was younger.

I made everything even worse by telling my sister about it on a Skype call and she looked at me dumbfounded. She told me that if my neighbour damaged the car then she should pay, regardless of it being under the table or her financial situation. Then my father heard about it and he called me telling me the very same thing. He had the exact same look on his face and he was getting angry. He asked me how she was paying to have her own car fixed? He then asked why I hadn’t pushed to have the car assessed. I had no response that I wanted to share with him. It was the look on his face that stuck with me after the call though. I couldn’t figure out what it was or what it meant. When I picked up Dorrit and paid the balance of the bill, Ethan asked when I was getting the cash from my neighbour. True to form, I was totally honest and told him she wasn’t paying. As my answer sunk in, he looked at me with THAT very same look on his face. He told me that my neighbour caused the damage and she should pay. He wanted her number and said he would call her. I wasn’t going to let him do that and I took my key and left.

I arrived home angry and upset. With a cup of tea in hand, I tried to break it all down as logically as I could. Firstly, I could see that I had caused this whole mess by tying myself in knots attempting to be nice to everyone around me. Additionally, if my sister, father and Ethan (who had no reason to care) all had the same reaction then my reasoning and behavior must be flawed in some way. I assumed that they were not angry at me, rather I speculated that they were confused. They were probably asking themselves why I was willing to pay and not stand up assertively for myself, especially when I was not at fault. It was illogical, but then our responses to trauma usually are. I could see that my learnt behavior was ingrained and that I would naturally fall back into it in moments of crisis.

Rather than chastise myself, I finished my cup of tea and sat in silence for a while. Being able to see that and be with it was the win for me. This wasn’t about the money or the car. This was about me, specifically who I was in the past and who I got to choose to be now.  I had nothing to lose and I decided to take action and call in my big gun. Her name is Darla.

Next Month: Darla: The Big Gun.

Posted by Robert O'Brien in Blog
The Adventures of Rob and Dorrit (the Toyota Echo): The Hot Rod

The Adventures of Rob and Dorrit (the Toyota Echo): The Hot Rod

A drive out to Langley was the longest trip Dorrit and I would undertake so far. Trips on motorways are easier than driving in the downtown core, but present their own challenges. I was taught to always check oil and water levels along with tire pressures before undertaking long journeys. I was still learning the “feel” of Dorrit and like most small cars designed and built over two decades ago, motorway cruising was not on the top of the design brief. Despite this fact and after all the necessary checks were complete, I hit the road early on a Saturday to meet my friend Rob at his mother’s house for a manly hang out session with his hot rod.

The drive out was around 45 minutes and I have to admit that it felt like a real adventure. I was travelling further outside of Vancouver than I had ever gone before. Like the starship Enterprise exploring the vast expanse beyond Federation space, Dorrit and I were now approaching the “frontier” of Langley. The car handled the drive well as I kept the speed steady at a manageable 100 kph. (60 mph).

Rob and I had met a few years ago through a leadership program run by Landmark Worldwide. He was a car guy and knew I had a love for cars. Like most people, he misunderstood my peculiar passion for cars. My enthusiasm is rooted more in the ideology and branding of cars than in their oily bits. I can talk about BMWs, Porsches and MINIs until the cows come home. I know their histories and internal designations but ask me to fix one and I’m left dumb founded. I remember when I was writing my dissertation on the first-generation BMW MINI, I was in awe of the fact that they were designing this little hatchback with a sophisticated multi-link rear axle. This was an expensive decision and compromised the MINI’s packaging by eating into its already tiny trunk (boot). But this made me fall in love with the car. It was a signal of intent, tangible proof that BMW meant business when they claimed that their MINI would handle like no other small car. I used this fact to support my argument that BMW was correct to highlight the MINI’s sporty characteristics rather than trying to be a revolutionary city car like the contemporary Audi A2. Yet, I had never seen this component and only had a basic understanding of how it worked. Those details, to me at least were not important. That is in contrast to Rob. He was fascinated by the mechanical details and I was about to find myself in a shed loaded with tools, battery chargers and propane tanks. A world that I was unfamiliar with and slightly fearful of.

Rob’s father had bought this hot rod as a project car and after his death, he had left it to him to continue the restoration. I was here to help him strip the car’s independent front suspension. It was a cold morning and we heated the shed with a wood stove. The place reminded me of my childhood in my uncle’s workshop. That smell of oil, rubber and petrol. The hot rod sat motionless under a work pit. We had to move it and hit our first snag of the day when it refused to start. Funnily, I had bought a small battery jump starter that I had in my “Dorrit travel bag”. I told Rob I could jump start the car and he gave me a mocking look when I pulled out the admittedly small device. He asked me if I had used it before t which I said “no” and that there was no time like the present. He attached the jump cables and we waited to see if it would work. To both our surprise after a few tick overs, the car roared into life. It was loud as hell as the small V8 was exposed and I could see all the belts pulling and whooshing around. I was on my guard. I had visions of catching hands or fingers in this engine and having them ripped right off!

After we moved the car, Rob asked me to remove the battery and connect it to the battery charger he had sitting over by the power tools. I hate going near car batteries having been warned as a child that if you remove them incorrectly, that they would explode in your face. As an adult, I know that is highly unlikely to happen, but there is always a niggling doubt. If this one did explode medical help was miles away and I would be scarred for life! My male pride trumped my fear and I went to work disconnecting the battery being especially careful not to let the cables come into contact with any metal. I didn’t want to get electrocuted either. But, I drew the line at hooking the battery up to the charger as I had no idea how to do that and Rob got his first inclination that I may be less handy around cars than he may have thought.

Next came stripping the suspension. Rob being more honest than myself said he had never done this before and we were going to figure it out. I nodded silently. Old, cold struts tend to be stiff and removing the brakes and their calipers was proving tricky. After a few attempts with tools failed, Rob went for the heat in the form of a propane tank and heater nozzle. Like batteries, I feared tanks of propane for their ability to explode. I figured if it did blow up, we were too close to ever know what had just happened. Rob began heating the nuts around the brake caliper and they began to glow red. He asked me to hold the nozzle and passed it to me before I had time to object. I held it tentatively trying to look relaxed as he applied brute force to the brake, pulling it free. We did the same to the other brake and continued to strip the suspension fully.

Despite what I have written about fear, explosions and electrocution, I was actually having a lot of fun. I was getting to see how cars work and getting my hands dirty in the process. I have to give Rob credit for his willingness to experiment and try to figure all these things out as he went. There was no pressure to get the job finished and it was more like we were playing a game together. It reminded me of my childhood when I would play with Legos and see what I could build. As a result, the time flew by and before I knew it four hours had passed and I was in Dorrit driving back to Vancouver. This gave me time to reflect on the day and I was proud of myself. I had faced some pretty big fears and though I didn't fully conquer them, nothing exploded! More than that, it was nice to finally see Rob's hot rod and take part in the process of car restoration. Truthfully, I envied him because he gets to keep this car as part of his father’s legacy and I could see how that brought him a lot of joy.

Despite our differing passions around cars, it was this hot rod that brought us together and made the day happen and it further reinforces my belief that cars are more than just transport.


Next Month: Dead Stop Dorrit

Posted by Robert O'Brien in Blog
The Adventures of Rob and Dorrit (the Toyota Echo): Express pick-up at IKEA

The Adventures of Rob and Dorrit (the Toyota Echo): Express pick-up at IKEA

As I loaded the fourth kitchen cabinet into Dorrit’s trunk I couldn’t help but be surprised by the sheer size of it. The Toyota Echo is essentially the Mk1 Toyota Yaris with a tacked-on trunk (or boot for my Irish brethren) and it was massive. I was more surprised to be loading kitchen cabinets into the car in the first place. They were not mine and I hadn’t planned on being anywhere near IKEA on this cold Sunday morning. But, a friend in need is a friend indeed and I owed Rory my very life in Vancouver.

The original plan was to rise early and go out to Rory in New Westminster, which is a thirty-minute drive from my home. I had discovered that simply telling him I’m coming over for coffee and rock up outside his house was a far more efficient way to maintain our friendship than phoning or texting. Rory is one of those horrid early riser types who gets up at the crack of dawn and gets to cleaning, running errands and being highly productive.

So, I was slight worried when Rory came sauntering out of his house, looking rather groggy and disheveled. “Are you OK”? I asked him. “Yeah, I just had a few beers last night” came his response. “I need coffee” he continued. He needed more than just coffee but we jumped into the car and drove to the local Starbucks. As we waited in line he told me that he had to go to IKEA to get cabinets for his ongoing renovation project. I felt a twinge of fear knowing where this conversation was going. “Do you fancy making a run to IKEA?” he asked. I didn't really, but I owed him a hell of a lot more than a trip to a furniture store.

Rory is my oldest friend in Vancouver. I met him through a girl in acting school all the way back in 2010. He came to our final showcase and I’d be lying if I said I remember everything about that night. I had just completed my six-month acting course and was getting ready to go home to Ireland and come out as gay at 32 years old. I was drinking to try and quell my nerves. Anyway, what I remember most about Rory was that he was a fellow geek and we instantly bonded over Star Trek and Stargate and The Transformers. Fast forward six months later, I was back in Vancouver, out and proud with a working holiday visa to my name. I needed a place to stay and Rory stepped in and offered me a room in his basement suite. We lived together for over a year and I learnt a lot from him ranging from the correct way to arrange toilet paper to the joys of arguing over fictional hyperdrive and shield power sources. Total geek tech talk and I loved it. He understood me in a way many people didn't and we would spend nights sitting together watching sci-fi on Netflix. Rory would have beer and a smoke while I would have a cup of tea and some biscuits. It was a match made in heaven and I have to give him a huge amount of credit here. He taught me about male friendship and made me feel safe in a city that was alien to me. He was not gay but had to deal with my 'dramatic teenager phase'. You see coming out at 32 meant that I had no idea how to date, never mind how to date men. One night I came home distraught thinking I had AIDS and poor Rory had to calm me down. I did not have AIDS and he stills jokes about it to this day. I can laugh now, but it was terrifying at the time. When it came time to move out he helped me and has constantly taken care of me. In response, I keep six beers in my fridge just for him along with salt and pepper in my press and I always have the toilet paper in the right position.

Rory knew the way to IKEA and I let him navigate. We chatted casually as I tried to concentrate on the road. Getting there was easy enough and then we had to find the express pick-up parking section. The cabinets were waiting for us and we loaded the car up quickly. On our way back Rory said it was lovely to be driven somewhere. He was slouching on his chair with his phone in hand. I understood what he meant. Driving is a wonderful freedom, but when it is always you doing it, it can get tiring. Sometimes you just want to sit back and relax, especially if you are feeling ropey and hungover. This was the first time in our long friendship that I had been able to do that for him. It may seem trivial or a male ego thing, but it felt good to be the one actively helping him. It was a re-balancing of our friendship and I had Dorrit to thank for that.

I smile knowing that even though my cars may change, the bond I feel to them doesn’t. They have always been companions that have allowed me to expand my life and relationships. It is crazy to think that this small car with a huge trunk makes me a better man and better friend to people like Rory.


Next Month: Dorrit and the Hot Rod.

Posted by Robert O'Brien in Blog