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

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

Perspective is a funny thing. I have spent the last 11 years travelling around Vancouver via the Skytrain and bus. Consequently, I learnt to navigate the city by finding the nearest train station or bus stop. I quickly realized when let loose behind Dorrit’s wheel, I had no idea where I was, let alone where I was going. It is a terrifying feeling and just like a virgin in the dark, I was struggling. As any modern human would do, I was forced to turn to the Internet, specifically Google Maps. Placing my faith in the disembodied voice of the Google Maps lady was something I have never had to deal with while driving in Ireland. Indeed, to my embarrassment, I had often stated that if someone can’t find their way on the roads they should not be driving! The irony eh?

I needed a phone cradle so I could see the map route as well as listening to the audio instructions and this is where Healthy Joe comes into this story. I added the ‘Healthy’ part as he was a relatively new friend I met at the gym. I would like to claim that exercise was my salvation during 2021 but truthfully, I am an aging vain pig and want to keep my body in shape. Anyway, I met Joe while I was crunching away on my six-pack and he was on the exercise bike. He initiated the conversation and I recognized his Irish accent immediately. Like all Irish abroad, I asked him where he was from. He is a Galway lad and we began sharing our stories and fitness routines. Joe is both younger and fitter than I, but it was nice to chat to someone from home. He had driven in Vancouver for a few years and had a car, so I was eager to pick his brain about the little things like managing junctions and the turning right at a red light. We talked for about thirty minutes before realizing that the gym was closing. Joe took my number and said we should go out driving together sometime.

As I have gotten older I have become a lot more cynical about people. Here in Vancouver there is nothing worse than being called a flake. That is someone who never follows through on their word or cancels plans at the last minute. I suppose the closest comparison would be someone taking the piss back home. But, true to his word, Joe texted me a few hours later and we arranged to go out for a drive and pick up a hands-free kit for Dorrit that Sunday morning. Again, true to his word, Joe arrived at my place for 9am just as we had planned. I was able to offer him a cup of tea made with my stash of Irish tea bags. Joe had mentioned that he sells health food products and he told me he was going to bring me a few samples. I was slightly taken aback when he handed me a large bag with various products inside, all wrapped and impeccably presented. As the seasoned driver, he suggested we go to Best Buy on Marine Drive as it was a straight run and off we went. He took the role of navigator and in typical Irish fashion told me to turn right and drive straight on for ages. That made me smile. What did ages even mean? Regardless, I trusted him more than Google and the twenty-minute drive was fun. I was pleasantly surprised at how at ease I felt with someone in the passenger seat. Up until this point, I had been driving solo. We arrived at our destination and I bought my hands-free kit. I was now ready to explore the city. I dropped Joe home and thanked him.

Arriving home and cup of tea in hand, I began to reflect on the morning and Joe himself. He impressed me as he was a man of his word. I have not only become more cynical but rather more hardened and distrustful of people. Having assumed that I have to do everything myself, I do not like to ask for help. Struggling and suffering is easier than appearing weak. It was Joe who began talking to me at the gym and the question in my head was asking what does he want from me? Turns out he wanted nothing. In fact, it was the opposite. He was helping me by offering to come for a drive. Additionally, he was driven by a passion to find is place in the world by helping others. By selling health foods and associated products he is doing something he believes in. I dug into his sample bag and again noted the presentation and care that had been taken. The sleep gummies were the first thing to catch my eye and I began using them. Unlike melatonin, which I have taken and been left feeling groggy, these gummies were keeping me asleep for the whole night. I have since become a customer and refer to Joe as my gummy dealer. Most of all though, my new friendship with Joe has left me feeling inspired. I see so much of who I used to be in him. I was eager and passionate when I came to Vancouver at the age of 31, his current age. I remember the excitement and joy I got from going into acting school every day and living in a foreign city. I was independent and free for the first time in my life and that allowed me to come out and explore my sexuality as well. I remember feeling truly alive when I was that age. Now at 44, I feel I have lost that lightness and optimism. In the past, I would have probably resented Joe and walked away, but what has surprised me the most is how inspired I am by him now. Driving a car again has awakened something similar in me and I am creating 2022 as the year of little steps back to a softer and kinder version of myself. One that can be present, patient and give back to others in an authentic way.

As a way to give back to Joe, I wanted to share a link to his page below. I can highly recommend the man and the products, especially the sleep gummies.

To everyone reading this blog, Happy New Year and may 2022 be a great year for all of us.


Next Month: Express pick-up at IKEA.

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

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

Blog 1: Hello Dorrit

It is a funny thing. I have lived in Vancouver for nearly eleven years and got my class 5 driving license way back in 2013. In all that time, I have never driven or owned a car in Vancouver. Given the fact that I wrote an autobiography where cars played major roles in my life story only made this situation more incongruous. That all changed when Coach Nina made me an incredibly generous offer.

Now, to learn who Coach Nina is and the full impact of her offer you really should have read my book Just One More Drive: The true story of a stuttering homosexual and his race car. Suffice to say Nina has become a trusted advisor, confidante and dear friend. We met on a training programme and she was my coach and our relationship has gradually evolved over the years. She has trained me to be a better author and public speaker, but most of all, she has taught me to see my own worth. This is probably my biggest failing as a person and is something I have to continually work on. It is much easier to do that with someone like Nina having my back.

Anyway, Dorrit (the black 2001 Toyota Echo that is a major part of this blog) was Nina’s car. She had owned it for years and it was her trusted steed. I had ridden in it a few times and had even bought a set of hubcaps for the car as a gift to Nina. She was offered a great deal on a new car and to my utter surprise, she offered me the Echo over a cup of coffee. I laughed and dismissed her offer out of hand thinking she was joking. Her face told me she was not making this offer in jest. I felt a wave of panic wash over me. Deserving is something I struggle with and it is connected with the idea of self-worth. I wondered what I had done to have someone as generous in my life as her. She was offering me her old car! “I can’t afford a car and I don’t really need one” I told her. Now Nina knows me too well. She did not push the issue.

The next week, she asked me if I would help her wash the car as she was going to put it up for sale. I know how to wash a car and I enjoyed the experience of telling her to step back and let me get on with rubbing down the vehicle. I was in my element. Nina said it would be a shame to let go of the car as it cleaned up so well. I knew what she was doing and she knew that I knew it too! I felt the same panic again. I wasn’t sure where it was coming from and I couldn’t help but imagine how my life would be transformed if I owned a car.

So, why was I so afraid to drive in Vancouver?

I was worried about the cost, as I had gotten myself into debt and had only recently repaid it. The insurance cost turned out to be much cheaper than I expected as my own wealth of driving experience in Ireland was taken into account. Additionally, the Echo was mechanically sound and Nina had a huge file to prove it. It would be a perfect first car. It took me a week of quiet contemplation to see that I had invented a story that driving here was dangerous. There was the rain and the snow, the multi-lane traffic along with driving on the “wrong” side of the road. I hated taking public transit, but it kept me safe and small.

In work the next day, the name “Dorrit” came to me and I thought about blogging about this whole experience. I was still fearful but there was also excitement bubbling up just beneath the surface. We went to the insurance broker, signed the papers and I was given a shiny set of license plates there and then. I felt like I was seventeen again getting my license. Nina had a screwdriver in her bag and she let me fit the plates. I couldn’t believe this was happening. I officially owned a car! We drove around quieter suburban roads for a while at a crawling speed and eventually the time came for me to drive home alone. I was given very specific directions; turn left, left again then take the next immediately right and straight on until I reach my home. I was so distracted with having to drive and navigate simultaneously, I got lost after the second left. I ended up heading towards the highway and being forced to travel at a far higher speed than I was comfortable with. “F**k Dorrit! WE ARE IN TROUBLE!!!!” I shouted at the car. All I could do was cling to the steering wheel for dear life and take the next exit. I could feel sweat drip down my back. I wanted to cry and hand the keys straight back. Getting off the highway, I parked up and turned off the engine. I sat in the car trying to regulate my breath. I didn’t have a phone cradle but I did have Google maps. I input my address and looked at the route before putting my phone on the passenger seat. The journey home seemed to take an eternity and I was going purely on the female voice coming out of my phone. As I got to my front door, Google lady said “Welcome home”. Dorrit and I had survived our first journey together. I texted Nina to tell her I was home safe, made a cup of tea and walked outside my house to where the car was parked.

Despite the fear and panic on that trip home, I could remember feeling something I hadn’t felt in years. Driving had always been a release for me and I took pride in my ability to drive. As a stuttering closeted teenager, that was the one skill I clung to. I had moments of that feeling driving home and it made me feel more complete somehow. I smiled looking at this little car I had called Dorrit and knew this was only the beginning of our adventures together.

Next Month: Dorrit and Healthy Joe.

Posted by Robert O'Brien in Blog
My Canadian Stuttering Association Workshop: A Written Recap.

My Canadian Stuttering Association Workshop: A Written Recap.

Thursday, October 17th:

It has been nearly a week since I got back from Toronto after giving my Canadian Association workshop on vulnerability. It is a funny thing really. I pitched the workshop months back in April and I knew it was coming but when the week of the trip arrived, it caught me off guard. It was my birthday on the 17th of October, the day before I flew out to Toronto. Work was busy and I was hastily working on a information "package" that my good friend (and very experienced public speaker), Tim told me was necessary for events like this. I spent hours working on my promotional material and printed out the only hard copy minutes before the application crashed and I lost the file. In the past, I would have panicked and stayed up all night redoing it but it was already late and I didn't have the energy. Besides, that is why we have local Staples stores and colour photocopiers.

Friday, October 18th:

I quickly got copies made on my way to the airport the next morning. The quality was good enough and after a train ride or two, I was at YVR checking in with time to spare. I was flying WestJet and I am not sure about the on-board app that is now being used in place of the more old-fashioned video screens in the back of the seats. I had to watch Detective Pikachu on my phone and I would have preferred a screen. First world problems.

Obviously, I was avoiding reviewing my workshop using live action Pokemon as a distraction. I have given a few speeches and workshops at this point and I still feel the need to go over things again and again. In truth, you have to wait until the day to gauge the audience and there is a danger in over-rehearsing material. The flight was four hours long and there is a three-hour time difference between Vancouver and Toronto. I didn't arrive at my destination until around 11:30pm. A 40-minute taxi ride later, I was at the hotel, tired and hungry. The hotel itself was not the most luxurious but, it was close to the venue and had a good internet connection. I found a McDonalds and ate back at the room, making final notes before falling asleep.


Saturday, October 19th:

I know I only got around 5 hours of sleep and was wide awake at 6:30am the next morning. You know that horrible feeling of not being rested and knowing you won't go back to sleep? That was where I was at. I decided to get up, eat (a protein bar, cereal and some apple juice) and shower (cold, as I needed to shake off my weariness). Another thing I am still figuring out is what to wear to these events. A full suit seems a bit much as these are usually more informal gatherings. Jeans and t-shirt is too casual and unprofessional. I like to dress somewhere in the middle. As a rule, I bring dress shoes, polish them before hand and always have a matching belt. People notice these things.

The hotel was close to the venue. After walking for less than 10 minutes I was there. I arrived at around 8:30am and the meeting room was already buzzing with activity. I briefly met my liaison to the CSA, Casey and after signing me in, I let him get on with managing the day. I wasn't given much guidance and the workshop wasn't assessed beyond the initial pitch and I had a little waver of fear. I wasn't going to talk about anything too controversial but I am still getting a handle on "pitching to a specific audience" and "reading the room". In other words, what sounds appropriate/relevant/hilarious to me, may actually offend others. I didn't want that to be the case here.

My spot was at 4:00pm, the final hour of the day and there were two other workshops running at the same time. One for children and the other on forgiveness. By 3:00pm I was feeling uncertain. A large portion of my workshop was interactive. Shocking as it may sound, I do actually get tired of talking about myself and I wanted the audience to get something new for themselves over the hour by talking to each other. Being someone who stutters myself, I have shut down in sessions where I was asked to talk to someone else. I called another trusted friend, someone who has been an amazing teacher around pitching and preparing my speaking events. I didn't ask her what to do, rather I outlined my plan to make a request of people and if that didn't work, I had a backup. The phone call helped settle my nerves and gave me confidence to go in and do what I wanted to do.

The hour passed quickly. Thankfully everyone was more than willing to interact and we talked about vulnerability, some practical tools and had a brief Q&A session at the end. I love the Q&A as it keeps me on my toes and gives me feedback on my own performance. On a personal level, I had to overcome a very subtle challenge. The previous speaker had left a chair in the centre of the stage. I saw it and was avoiding sitting down. Sure, I walked and talked and stood by the podium, but the chair was still there empty. In my head, I imagined it like the Captain's chair on a starship and that hour was my time in "command" as it were. I was determined to take chair and by the latter half of the workshop I gingerly sat down and stayed seated until the end of the session.

After the conference ended around thirty participants went for dinner. It was nice to hang out in a more informal setting and after two hours I went back to the hotel. I was drained and needed to change before meeting Sachi, an old friend from acting school who now lives in Toronto. We didn't get together until 9pm and as tired as I was, it was thrilling to see her. Doing things like flying to a strange city for 24 hours just to give a talk is exciting to me and I wanted to take every opportunity to get the most from the limited time. Sachi and I talked about old times and of letting go of those old times. I miss the acting classes and more to the point, I think I miss who I was back then. A little more carefree and less cynical. Arriving back in my room at 11:30pm, I had a total speech breakdown on the phone ordering a taxi. Learning to coach oneself is another valuable skill and I am proud to say I got myself through the disappointment of not being fluent. If I am going to speak to people on these matters then I had better practice what I preach.


Sunday, October 20th:

I woke up early again on Sunday, my phone showing 6:30am. I got up, showered and began to pack. Checking out was quick and I waited for "Sid" the taxi driver to arrive. Now that my nerves had settled, I noticed how hungry I was. It was time to feed the beast before boarding the plane.

I was stuck in the middle seat on the flight home, which always sucks. The girl to my left was buying duty free make-up in between snoozing. The guy to my right was watching a movie on his lap-up in between farting. I was exhausted and sleeping as best I could. Arriving back to a rainy Vancouver at midday, I spoilt myself and took a cab. Arriving home, I unpacked, Skyped Mum and Dad (as is my Sunday ritual), hit the gym (I ate a lot of carbs over the two days!) and then began working on a video diary of the whole adventure, to mark it and International Stuttering Awareness Day on October 22nd.

All in all, it was a crazy weekend. I would do it again in a heartbeat. After everything is said and done, the cost and time and effort are all part of the journey. Being a public speaker is something I have begun to love. All of my training comes into play and it is a way to acknowledge my own challenges with stuttering while doing some good in the world and helping others. I have to say a huge thank you to the CSA and to all the people in my own life who have been supporting me on this particular journey.

I have already begun looking to creating more speaking/workshop opportunities as we move into 2020.




Posted by Robert O'Brien in Blog