On “O” Rings, Dumping, and Speeding

Last night, “O” ring #20 failed. Snapped without a sound.

Screen Shot 2014-11-17 at 11.10.42 AM


Unlike those infamous “O” rings from the Challenger disaster, when this one failed, no one died.  Well, maybe no one died.

Or maybe someone did.  

In 1988, I’d been dumped by a man I’d lived with for five years. In response, my mother had said, “They’ll never buy the cow if you give the milk away for free.” 



Tempted to buy into her line of reasoning,  I hopped a plane and outran my momentary desire to listen.  The plane landed in Lima, Peru, during the reign of the terrorist group, The Shining Path.

Think black-outs, riots, desperados, and men who thought a single blonde woman traveling alone was fair game.

Starting with the government officials, the immigration officer hugged me and wished me “mucho amor en Peru.”


Tick, tick, tick…


I didn’t find love, but I did run into a guardian angel, a Scheherazade who told me stories that kept me from fleeing back to the U.S.  after events went a bit sideways. I was mugged and tear-gassed, fell out of a bus on the high plain from Machu Picchu to Cusco, and learned through trial and error about avoiding water-borne illnesses. 

Screen Shot 2014-11-17 at 11.18.50 AM

The high point? The vibe of Machu Picchu while it was still a sleepy pile of rocks on a mountain top.


Fast forward through Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, Bali, Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong, China. 

Wait—rewind. Let’s stop in Bangkok. I was telling you about “O” rings. I stayed in a guest house on Khaosan Road, a backpackers’ destination. Outside the guest house, hundreds of Tracy Chapmans  (well, at least hundreds of pirated copies) sang me to sleep and woke me up with: 

“You got a fast car
I want a ticket to anywhere
Maybe we make a deal
Maybe together we can get somewhere
Any place is better
Starting from zero got nothing to lose
Maybe we’ll make something…”

Not adding to the cacophony of street vendors, a silent man sat cross-legged outside my guest house, his arms completely encircled in black “O” rings.

I wanted some of those rings, so I bought twenty for five baht. Twenty rings around my right arm. 

I never took them off, except when I got married. The morning after the wedding they returned to my arm, where they stayed until one by one, over the next twenty years, they broke. 

It’s clear, now, that my flight wasn’t just about the man who was no longer in my life. It had more to do with leaving engineering behind, a boot that had been both the wrong shape and too small for my foot. It was about proving I had the courage to find my way through science writing and grant writing, to the point where I was telling peoples’ stories and then telling tales of my own.

And maybe I was a little ticked that I had been dumped


in favor of a sportier vehicle. 


So yesterday marked the passing of the last “O” ring. And with it, dare I say my youth? Maybe. My cluelessness? No. Because I still feel clueless. But if I drink some caffeine or something with bubbles and avoid the mirror, I still feel youthful and vaguely wise.

Does it matter that a lurking dragon, a birthday milestone,  with its half-baked breath creeps closer every night? Is that why I find it so difficult to close my eyes to the darkness?

My last talisman has broken. Perhaps I should stop thinking that anything died with those “O” rings. 

Maybe it’s time to hop in my own fast car, to speed so fast it feels like I am drunk.



After all, I’m no longer starting from zero.



36 thoughts on “On “O” Rings, Dumping, and Speeding

  1. m lewis redford says:

    Dude! – you did all that; you travelled all that distance, you bought all those rings (or were they “O”s), (or were they ‘oh’s – in which case you need now to go and buy some ‘ah’s … don’t know what shape they’d be … or where you’d wear them), but, … Dude!

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Ahhhh! That’s just what I’m missing! I’m thinking they take the shape of whatever state your mind’s in at the moment. Permanently fluid. The result? You can wear them anywhere. The problem? Finding them while beating the bushes for snipes.

  2. FictionFan says:

    Wow! Fantastic story Jilanne – and dare I say superbly written? I got the e-mail alerting me to the post just as I was about to go out earlier so didn’t have time to read the full thing. But I glanced at your tags and was completely intrigued to see how you could possibly tie together ‘getting dumped’, ‘Shining Path’ and ‘Tracey Chapman’. You did it! The only thing is, you’ve left me wanting more – much more! Especially about the whole Peru adventure…

    As someone halfway between two milestone birthdays, I’ve concluded (mainly in order to stop me sobbing admittedly) that youth is over-rated. I’d like that supple and resilient body back, the ability to party all night and go to work in the morning, but I think I can live quite happily without the churning emotions, the insecurity and the whole getting dumped thing. Even if it means an exciting night out ends at 11 p.m. with a nice cup of cocoa and a good book…

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Thank you, FF! Ha! Yes, the great emotional washing machine and then the wringer. Don’t miss those at all.

      I’ve toyed with writing more about the Peru period. One of these days…

      Now it’s time to make a cup of cocoa and cozy up with my laptop, as my workday has not yet come to a close. The rain gods have finally opened the spigot on northern California. Yay!

  3. Letizia says:

    A start of a new chapter, I say! Perhaps traveling to a new country you’ve never been. With cows perhaps 🙂 A touching, beautiful, funny piece – thanks for sharing it with us.

  4. crimeworm says:

    I really enjoyed this, I love that comment your mum made. What a great story – and it takes a lot of guts to throw yourself into life when someone’s just kicked you in the teeth – says a lot about your strength of character!

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Thank you! Yes, my mother was filled with all sorts of sayings. I miss her voice.

      Now about my character, I’m not sure if it’s strong or just impulsive. I’ll go with strong since that is ever-so-much more desirable. 😀

      Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Britt Skrabanek says:

    I agree with everyone! I think this is a great sign and time for a new chapter in your life to begin. I understand how something like that can be sad when it’s been a part of you for so long. Time to go out and experience something brand new!

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Yes! Time to throw myself to the wind! Or was that caution I was supposed to throw?

      Seriously, I’m with you. My arms are open and I’m running full speed ahead! Best find a windshield. I hate picking bugs out of my teeth.

  6. Mrs. P says:

    Awesome post! So…your a wild thing with may adventures of your worldly exploits! Good for you!

    Funny the things we create as symbolism for our choices in life.

    As you reach that looming milestone do something that makes you laugh and smile and feel all that youthful exuberance. I had often hear the expressions about age and wisdom and now I see myself saying from time to time.

    As I look at the younger generation I laugh at the realization that I was once that young and naive. Now, I look at growing old gracefully and with dignity…and some how or other keeping healthy enough to enjoy it all.

  7. Call of the Siren says:

    Beautiful post, Jil. You made me ask myself what’s poetic (if anything) about my own life, my own history. We should all have those enigmatic mementos that have a private meaning. Just beautiful. thank you.

  8. Kate Johnston says:

    I find symbolism in just about everything, even cows. New chapter, indeed, embrace it. Beautiful words in a funny, poignant, more-ish post (more-ish is my grandmother’s word for “I want more!)

  9. Laurel Leigh says:

    I love this post. I started off thinking you were talking about notebook O-rings. I love that we sort of went around the world and came back to your arm. Certainly, you are free of some of your past that also now defines you as such a talented and gorgeous writer.

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