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