stimulation / silence

When Heather Cox Richardson takes a day off from reporting the daily news from a historian’s perspective in “Letters from an American,”
she posts spectacular photos of Maine.
Wednesday, December 7, 2021

I’ve been remarkably contented lately despite choices I’m making that would, at one time, have sent me into a downward spiral of guilt. So either I’m becoming self-actualized or I’ve seriously lowered my standards for myself. I’m OK with either—it’s such a relief to be letting myself be.

I have become an unashamed, extreme omnivore, by which I mean that I’m eating not just meat and plants, but everything that isn’t nailed down. This is not the first time I’ve gone through such a phase; it happens periodically, often (obviously) around the holidays. I got an early start on this current feeding frenzy when we were in Flagstaff for the month of October. I was sure I gained ten pounds while there, but there was no scale in the house we rented—one of the many bonuses of being away from home. As has happened before, I got back to find that, miraculously, I was at the same weight as when we left. Of course, I responded by upping the ante and eating even more. I have gained some pounds now, and would theoretically like to lose those pounds and more, but I’m not stressing over it—at all.

I decided today that I need to start eating in a healthier way. The first step, I reckoned, was to get rid of all the unhealthy foods in the house. So I ate them. Breakfast consisted of the last of the leftover sweet potatoes from Thanksgiving (with an apple-crisp topping) and about 25 “fun-size” packs of M & M’s left over from Duke’s poker game last week. Not a shred of regret, though clearly my rational mind was not in charge. In fact, I felt very virtuous, clearing the decks for a new start.

A second sign of a slide into self-indulgent dissipation is a new addiction to playing solitaire on my phone. This also started in Flagstaff, and has become a dependable way to self-soothe. Like doing jigsaw puzzles, it occupies the part of my mind that would otherwise be fretting about something. And as with jigsaws, I can easily listen to my audiobook with total concentration while I play. It’s a great way to learn the valuable lesson “you win some, you lose some,” though I can’t pretend I didn’t know that already.

Thirdly, speaking of audiobooks, I am working my way through the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian for the fifth time. (Richard is an O’Brian fan, too, and also currently listening to them for the fifth time, but several books behind me.) Each book in the series of twenty (or twenty-one if you count the last, unfinished one) entertains me for between twelve and seventeen hours. The most well-known book in the series is the first, Master and Commander. If you’ve seen the movie of that name, in which Russell Crowe plays Jack Aubrey, you have been given a bum steer. (The link is for those who aren’t familiar with the phrase… I heard it all the time growing up.) I seriously doubt that the casting director had read the book because the chosen actors bear no resemblance to the Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin of the books. As I watched the movie, I muttered to myself (à la Lloyd Bentsen), “You, Russell Crowe, are no Jack Aubrey.”

I started this iteration of listening to the series sometime in November, and I’m now on the seventeenth one. By listening to them for many hours a day for weeks on end, I am spending lots of time living vicariously in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. I emerge from my historical counterlife long enough to prep lessons, tutor kids, go to meetings, see friends, and volunteer, but immediately retreat back into it while I drive, walk, do housework, cook (sort of), play solitaire and do my jigsaw puzzle.

British Flagship HMS Victory – Lord Nelson’s flagship – Jack Aubrey met Nelson as a young sailor and idolizes him

The series may not for everybody. Our book club was, in general, not thrilled with our choice of Master and Commander. They all attempted to read it in book form and, put off by all the naval terminology, did not fall in love with the characters as I have. I’m not sure whether I would have loved it so much if I hadn’t “read” it as an audiobook narrated by (now dearly departed) Patrick Tull. There are passages involving naval maneuvers and battles that I only barely follow, so sometimes I zone out for a bit, but the characters! There are many men, of course, and a number of women as well, all superbly well-drawn, nuanced, complex, and relatable. Each of the main characters is is given a distinct voice by Tull. Though fictional, they grow and change as living humans do over the fifteen years (1800-1815) the books cover. Other than a few idiots and evil-doers, I love them all.

I just learned that the series is an example of a roman-fleuve (French, literally “river-novel”). Wikipedia defines the term as “an extended sequence of novels of which the whole acts as a commentary for a society or an epoch, and which continually deals with a central character, community or a saga within a family. The river metaphor implies a steady, broad dynamic lending itself to a perspective. Each volume makes up a complete novel by itself, but the entire cycle exhibits unifying characteristics.” Yes, exactly.

The first time I listened to the series in the 1990s, I was hooked by the first scene in Master and Commander. Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin meet while seated next to each other listening to a chamber music concert in Port Mahon, Spain. It is not love at first sight. Both of them love music, but demonstrate their enjoyment very differently. Stephen is listening intently, but is so distracted, even offended, by Jack’s enthusiastic gestures and rhythmic tapping that after the concert, they come close to dueling. Instead of trying to kill each other, however, they manage to get past the affront and over the course of the first book, become “particular friends.”

It’s late Friday night and WordPress is not letting me put a caption below the gallery below, so I’m writing it here. Frank Kaplowitz was a friend of Richard’s parents, and after retirement, began building gorgeous scale models of ships. We bought this one from him in 2004, love it dearly, and really need to have a Lucite case made for it. Frank used diagrams from The Anatomy of Nelson’s Ships and included every detail. I wish now that we had made a video of him describing the process—but we didn’t.

Jack Aubrey is a captain in the Royal Navy and has spent most of his life at sea. By contrast, Stephen Maturin is a classically educated Irish-Catalan physician as well as a “natural philosopher” and linguist. Although he fought to free Ireland from England in the 1798 uprising, his hatred of Napoleon leads him to become a British intelligence agent. What first draws the two together is Jack’s need for a ship surgeon, a position for which Stephen is overqualified, but willing to take for lack of another prospect. Despite their differences, they sail over much of the world, engaging in naval battles and intelligence missions, with an occasional stop on land that allows Stephen to observe nature, and even discover a new species. The fact that both are musicians (Jack plays violin, Stephen cello) deepens their rapport and gives them a creative outlet while they’re at sea.

O’Brian’s female characters are wonderful. Two of them manage to be quite “liberated” women despite the inflexibility of gender roles at the time. Maturin is a proto-feminist, whereas Aubrey is more a man of his time and only begins to realize that women are human beings near the end of the series. The two men’s relationship is a central feature of the stories, always interesting and often entertaining. Both Richard and I occasionally laugh out loud as we listen. There are many phrases used often throughout the books that have become part of our conversations at home, so don’t be surprised if you should ever hear one of us say any of the following:

"You astonish me!" 
"I should like it of all things!"
"The bottle stands by you." [We substitute "remote" for bottle.]
"Can I trouble you for the salt?" 
[Introducing someone] "Allow me to name..."
[When trying to determine a day/time to meet] "Are you bespoke for...?
[When heading to the bathroom] ""Pray entertain yourself. I must retire to the seat of ease."

Given the richness of the language and the characters, I find I don’t much care to know the definitions of all the nautical terminology—though terms like “futtock shrouds” and “lubber’s hole” roll into my ears and off my tongue as if I know what I’m talking about. I can tell you that it’s an advantage in a naval battle to “have the weather gauge,” but cannot not explain what it is or why it’s the better position. Richard has actually learned what many of the terms mean. I guess I could learn too, but after all, this isn’t a class I’m taking—there will be no vocabulary test!

Patrick O’Brian (1914-2000) was a fiercely private man who wanted no publicity about his personal life. He resented journalists’ attempts to discover details about his background. However he came to be who he was, there is no doubt that he was brilliant, highly verbal, had a prodigious memory, and was curious and knowledgeable about nearly everything: birds, animals, plants, languages, medical knowledge of the early 19th century, geography, human relationships, and (of course) ships and naval warfare.

I will say no more. Perhaps just getting through my lengthy description tells you all you care to know. But for another female fan’s point of view, read Lucy Eyre’s “Why Patrick O’Brian is Jane Austen at Sea” published in The Guardian in 2014, the centenary of O’Brian’s birth. Interestingly, she also mentions “futtock shrouds,” but probably, like me, cannot define them (nor care to).

None of the above has anything to do with the title I gave this post, and I do want to touch on that before I sign off.

stimulation / silence

When my son-in-law Wayland was about five years old, his mother Julie found that he had closed himself into a sort of stairwell, just sitting by himself on the floor. She asked what he was doing, and he answered, “My brain is talking to me,” which I’m guessing meant that he was deep in thought. I love that story, and in remembering it the other day, realized that I don’t give my brain much chance to talk to me except when I’m drifting off to sleep or writing a post. I often, especially now that I’m immersed in the Aubrey-Maturin books, put my headset on immediately after waking, listen for hours every day, and only remove the headset to plug it in to charge at the end of the day.

I am enjoying myself so much listening and, as with overeating and playing solitaire, I’m OK with the stimulation of nearly constant verbal input, but I know that I would benefit from more times of silence. I make myself experiment with giving myself 15-20 minutes of silence now and then, and I enjoy it. My brain still overflows with words, but it always has. I have put half-hearted effort into meditation several times in the past without much success. (Not surprising since I’ve admitted to being “half-hearted” about it.) I’m sure it would be therapeutic, but I’d have to stop soaking in words. Maybe someday.

afterword – return to reason

Friday, December 10, 2021

When I woke up last night to walk to the bathroom, I became aware that as my arms swung, they were touching flesh in a way I have not experienced since pregnancy. I also, only half-awake, found that I was “carrying” my growing belly pouch in my hands. In that moment, I knew that it was time to return to a more disciplined sort of enjoyment, gently building some structure to guide me. It’s great fun to overeat, but from experience, I know that there is also pleasure to be found in self-control. I signed up to start Weight Watchers online and made my starting day Saturday (because we’re going to eat out tonight at a restaurant where the bread is wonderful).

I had great success with WW after Katie’s birth. I was nursing, which allowed me to eat quite a bit more than the others in my weekly group meeting and still lose weight quickly. I had a momentary fantasy that I could hire myself out as a wet nurse, but that ship sailed long ago, (and has, in fact, been dismasted). WW, if I’m playing by the rules, will be an enormous change from my recent eating habits, and therefore a challenge. Fortunately, I love most vegetables so I’ll be able to munch on something between meals to keep my jaws busy. I just need to get back into actually planning what to eat rather than impulsively eating whatever I see in front of me.

I’m SO glad I had the good sense to get rid of those M & Ms!

Also, an update on stimulation/silence: Two days from when I started this post, I am now on the 19th book in the Aubrey-Maturin series, a fact that betrays my continued total immersion in listening. There is only one more full book in the series, plus an unfinished one. I think I’m getting ready to emerge into the 21st century, but only the parts of it that don’t make me anxious. And when I was running errands this afternoon, I managed to NOT listen for the entire time I was putting gas in my car. Baby steps…

My latest…


  1. You may not be Jane Austin, but you certainly meet and exceed the standards of Karina Bland!

    Richard S. Plattner
    2017 Phoenix ABOTA Lawyer of the Year
    Fellow, American College of Trial Lawyers
    602.743.6342 (cell)
    602.266.2002, ext. 108 (office)
    Sent from my iPhone. Please excuse autocorrect and dictation errors.


  2. I really enjoyed this despite having no interest in Napoleon, naval warfare or Master and Commander. It’s one of your best posts, especially the humor about dieting.
    I am embarrassed to admit that I always thought “bum steer” came from cattle ranching. I can almost hear Ben Cartwrigh, Hoss or Little Joe saying it.


    • I thought that’s where “bum steer” came from, too! It sounds very “cowboy.” And though I love the books, I still have no interest in Napoleon, naval warfare, etc. — it’s the characters that draw me in.


  3. Dear Susan, I just love way you love yourself and can laugh at yourself. My definition of maturity!! I’ve never
    read (or watched) the writing in question, but looks like you did a great job relating it to us.
    Happy Holidays to you and Duke, Love, Peg


  4. Susan, you are so funny and so brave to write about issues with which most of us, if not all of us, struggle. When I was in school “The Bum Steer” was the name of a bar we frequented. It was an OK place, but the beer and burgers at “The Dark Horse” (another bar) tasted better. Here’s to not taking things too seriously. Happy December! Frances


    • Happy December to you and Bill, too! And thanks for the yummy tamales. I will have to eat them sparingly if I stick to Weight Watchers, but then, I’m learning to work the system to my advantage. I get to add extra points to my 20/day by drinking lots of water, eating lots of vegetables and walking. This really helps when I want to splurge by having tamales (which BTW are 10 points each!!). Love to both, S


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