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Noetic Toe
19 July 2014 @ 10:08 am
A few interlocutors asked for more pics of the innards of Sparky. Herewith, then, they are:

This is the cooking surface. The grill grates are installed. There should be plenty of room in the smoking chamber for smoke and heat to circulate freely around the meat. You can see the open channel for the chimney at the top. The block that will channel the heat and smoke through from the firebox is visible below the grates.

photo 2
Here's a view of the firebox with the top off. The channel into the smoking chamber is visible in the center. The block on its side at the bottom will provide air intake. It is partially obstructed by the floor of the firebox and will be further blocked if need be to provide regulation to the fire.

photo 5
Same firebox. Different angle. Apologies for the shadows.
photo 4
Firebox again, with a closer view of the construction detail. A cast iron grate will sit on the floor of the firebox to hold fuel.
photo 3
Noetic Toe
18 July 2014 @ 12:34 am

This week saw a lot of progress on Sparky! On Sunday afternoon Shell and I picked up a couple loads of eight-inch cinder blocks. The boys had a good time helping us lug the blocks to the back yard -- it was a family affair.

I had earlier cleared and leveled the footprint of the smoking chamber, but when I began to place the blocks I saw that I had misjudged some dimensions and there was a little more digging to do. A layer of sand helped me to level the first course. After the first course was on the ground, the rest was just the work of moving blocks into place, getting the corners square, etc.

The smoking chamber stands four courses high. The center block in the second course on the front wall is flipped on its side so that its holes will conduct heat and smoke from the firebox through to the smoking chamber. A second block, also flipped on its side, sits behind the first, so that the terminus of the heat flow is about half way under the grill surface. (Hey, that's pretty clever!)

Twelve eight-inch flat steel strap ties are inserted beneath the top course of blocks with about two inches exposed. These will hold the grilling surface. I know they will rust, but they are easily and cheaply replaced. I couldn't find anything suitable in stainless that wouldn't break the bank.

That was enough work for one afternoon.

On Monday, Shell kindly picked up the load of four-inch "regular" blocks and four-inch solid caps that I needed to finish the structures. My sons, again, moved them all to the work area.

I spent the first part of the week thinking about the details of the firebox, the mechanics of airflow, how to cover the firebox and smoking chamber, and myriad other little details. Sketchup was a big help. Also, finding this calculator was incredibly helpful.

After an iterative design process that included several returns to the drawing board and a call with my father to hash through a few sticking points, I finally settled on a suitable design for the firebox. It is stepped down below the bottom course of the smoking chamber about four inches. Four-inch blocks form the floor, flanked by two courses of eight-inch blocks; one of the bottom blocks towards the front of the firebox is flipped on its side to permit an airflow channel. One four-inch block stands against the first course of the smoking chamber, providing a little support. And two four-inch blocks close the other end of the firebox.

This plan became a reality tonight. When I got home from the office I was able to get the firebox assembled and all the caps set. I still had to think through the chimney assembly a bit. I removed one block in the top course of the smoking chamber (back corner, opposite side from the air intake on the firebox) and replaced it with the cap. The block then went on top, flipped on its side so that one hole was open to the smoking chamber; the other hole was blocked by its neighbor block. That will give me a perfect opening in which to place a four-inch aluminum 90-degree flex angle, coupled with about 24 inches of four-inch aluminum flex duct. These materials are ordered and on their way.

Of course, swapping the cap for the block meant that my cap course was going to be off if I wanted to continue the "running bond" pattern. I needed to break one of the four-inch caps in half in order to keep things right. The boys were very impressed when I used a hatchet (because I don't have a brick hammer) to score the block across the center on both sides and then with one deft blow broke it cleanly in half.

I contemplated how to cover the smoking chamber and the firebox for several days. I needed it to be easy enough to get in and out of in order to check the cooking meat, add fuel to the fire, etc. Galvanized steel is not an option. Stainless is too expensive. I briefly dreamed up some elaborate cover designs that involved rockwool batting sandwiched between a sheet of plywood and aluminum flashing, but life is too short. I decided to take the easy way out and buy two sheets of 25 gauge aluminum sheet metal. Lowe's has them in 24" x 36" sheets, which fit almost perfectly. A little bend to the sheet on the firebox helps it so sit in place just so; stepping the cap course on the smoking chamber in an inch on two sides helped make it work there, too.

So, almost all set! I'll get the chimney sorted early next week. I should receive the grill grates tomorrow. I'm picking up a fireplace grate insert tomorrow for the firebox. I need to pick up some rockwool to stuff in the random cracks and openings. I'm filling in the bottom of the smoking chamber with bricks, sand, and a top layer of pebbles, up to the bottom of the smoke/heat inlet.

And then, fire.

Noetic Toe
08 July 2014 @ 11:31 pm
This past weekend we visited my dear uncle, aunt, and their clan in South Carolina. Two of my cousins, who are impressively talented at fabricating buildings (as well as being fine folks all around), whipped up a barbecue pit from plywood and other odds and ends and sat up all night babysitting roasting pig parts.

The alchemy was present, their efforts were fruitful, and the pig was turned into amazingly delicious, perfectly slow-smoked barbecue.

This got me to thinking that I should work towards realizing my dream of a functional backyard barbecue pit -- nothing elaborate or even permanent. Just something that I can use more easily than my aging CharGriller to smoke up a shoulder or four. I had not intended to go public with this project in case I lost either my initiative or fortitude. But my dear wife outed me on both Instagram and Facebook. So, I might as well document my progress here.

Monday I sat down with my graph paper and did a little research. I came up with a design for a modest little pit that I thought might work; I dubbed her "Sparky".


Sparky will have an offset firebox and a cooking surface of approximately 32" x 24". The structure will be made of cinder blocks, which will be just set in place, leveled with sand; no mortar.

Monday afternoon I staked out a spot in the backyard for Sparky. I cleared the brush from the ground and began to dig a trench to level out a footer for the first course. The yard slopes pretty nicely, so that turned out to be more work than I expected. I got it about half way finished by Monday evening.

photo (4)

Tuesday after work I picked up my spade again and finished leveling out the footer. I had three cinder blocks at hand and used them to measure off the perimeter and level the surface all the way around. Miraculously, I managed to get it level on the first try by leaving one block in place at one corner and stair-stepping the others around the rectangle. When I closed the loop and everything fit snugly and was reasonably level, Josh and I cheered.

I cleared out the step down terrace for the firebox and called it a night.

photo 1

I'm pretty happy with my progress. So far, I have one busted blister on one hand, a few achy joints (particularly the elbows), and some nicks and bruises on my legs. And I've sweated a fair amount. That's not a bad thing.

I'm ready for a load of cinder blocks, some sand, and a few fire bricks. Then the fun really begins.

Noetic Toe
31 March 2014 @ 10:19 pm
Here followeth the testimony of Blacky ...


1 The account of the life and death of Blacky, fish of great promise and strong constitution.

2 Blacky and his brethren were purchased from the Fish Store by the Children of David although, verily, it was the funds of David that purchased the fish. (This was that David who is servant to the Queen of that household.)

3 For many months didst Blacky and his brethren and kindred live in the household of David and the Queen. Yea, in a 25-gallon tank didst they live. And David didst feed them fish flakes of the highest quality and they were well pleased, for as it is written, good fish flakes maketh the heart merry.

4 And the Children of David looked upon the fish and the 25-gallon tank and saw that it was good and they blessed David in the gates of the Town of Cary.

5 And it came to pass in those days that the Holidays were upon the household of David; yea, like locusts did those days descend upon them, even like unto a plague. And David was without work and didst vacation in his household. 6 And verily, David’s presence didst vex the Queen and she didst say “Why art thou always under foot and in the way? Why canst thou not find something productive to do? Why dost thou tease the children and play video games day and night?” And, lo, the spirit of exertion fell upon David and he determined in his heart to clean the 25-gallon tank, for it was full of fish flakes and green algae, and he coveted the blessings of the Queen.

7 Now David didst follow in the footsteps of his fathers and sought to cut corners where such could be cut. And, verily, he didst clean the coral of the 25-gallon tank with a noxious chlorine bleach and the coral didst absorb the noxious chlorine bleach, but David knew it not. 8 And, lo, when David didst place the coral back into the 25-gallon tank, the water thereof didst hiss and sizzle. But David paid it no heed. And Blacky and his brethren were sore afraid.

9 Then didst the brethren of Blacky begin to list and swim on their sides. And the angel of death was concealed within the coral and he visited the sword upon the brethren of Blacky, but he passed over Blacky without requiring his soul.

10 Nevertheless Blacky did mourn for his fallen brethren and for two days he didst lie upon the gravel at the bottom of the 25-gallon tank. And he was utterly alone.

11 And the Children of David didst offer up prayers and intercessions for Blacky, that he might be saved. And the LORD heard their prayers and granted their requests and Blacky swam again right side up. And the Children of David began making plans for the purchase of new fish; yea, with David’s funds didst they intend to purchase them.

12 Now all this occurred during the time of the Christmas festival, and the crown of the New Year was upon them. And the Children of David learned a valuable lesson about the transience of life, especially in fish.

1 And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from the Queen of the household that all the furniture of the Family Room should be moved. (And this moving was done in connection with the taking down of the Christmas tree when David was still at home and under foot.)

2 David said, “Verily, O Queen, thou art a harsh taskmistress. Thou dost reap where thou hast not sown and thou dost come up with jobs for thy servant when thy servant wouldst rather be sitting and reading. Nevertheless, not my will by thine be done.” 3 And David worked with all diligence to make the Family Room in the image that the Queen desired, even to the moving of bookcases and large couches.

4 But then the Queen said, “The 25-gallon tank thou must move to before the window; yea, before the window do I desire it.” And the Queen was great with child, and hormones were verily washing over her, and David was sore afraid.

5 And David said, “O Queen, thou has asked a very difficult thing. Doth thou know the weight of a 25-gallon tank, filled with water? Verily it is too heavy for thy servant to move.” 6 Then didst the Queen grow wroth with David and she didst believe him to be a slacker and not willing to do her will. And she told David, “Thou dullard! Canst thou not merely remove water from the tank? Yea, an nearly empty tank thou shalt be able to move. And when it is placed in front of the window, thou shalt refill it anew.”

7 And David said, “O Queen, may thou live forever, the removal of the water from the 25-gallon tank is a large task because thy servant has only a 2.5 gallon vessel in which to remove the water; and, yea, the vessel with which I refill the tank is only of 1 gallon so we are talking a major time commitment. And verily, O Queen, our sole fish Blacky hath survived a terrible ordeal in these latter days and I do not believe that he hath the strength to survive yet another shock as wouldst be caused by the changing of the water.” 8 But the Queen wouldst not relent, neither couldst David persuade her to see things his way.

9 David wept.

10 And then didst David remove most of the water from the 25-gallon tank, even unto nine tenths of the water didst David remove. And Blacky, the fish of great promise and strong constitution didst swim in three inches of water.

11 David did as his Queen commanded and the 25-gallon tank was removed to in front of the window, and the water was replaced, and the Queen was very pleased and blessed David for his labors. And the Children of David were also pleased.

12 Then didst Blacky begin to list and swim upon his side. And he didst lay upon the gravel at the bottom of the tank. 13 And the Children of David believed Blacky would recover because he was the fish of great promise and strong constitution. But, verily, the LORD determined that the soul of Blacky should swim that day with his fathers. And David had foreseen this.

14 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the Prophet Jekaniah, saying:

A voice was heard in Carolina,
Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning,
Noah weeping for his tropical fish,
Refusing to be comforted,
Because they are no more.

15 And the wailing of the Children of David was great to behold. And they blamed David for the death of Blacky, not realizing that it was the Queen who had done this thing.

16 Then didst David say unto his children, “The LORD giveth and the LORD taketh away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”

17 And so ended the sojourn on this earth of Blacky. For though he was a fish of great promise and strong constitution, and could survive noxious chlorine bleach, he was no match for the will of the Queen.
Noetic Toe
Last fall my wife Shell and I attended a drama showcase presented at our kids’ school. This was not a full-blown production of a play; rather, it was a sort of informal warm up – a series of single-act pieces and improvisational exercises intended to let the middle school drama troupe get familiar with the stage and experience performing in front of an audience.

1526108_10151837727201914_230762673_nThe result was about what one would expect for a group of middle schoolers their first time out: a bit of nervousness, some minor flubs, a few funny moments, and the odd flash of cleverness.

The audience was pretty friendly, being made up mostly of teachers, parents, and siblings of the actors. They all clapped politely at the end.

All, that is, except for Shell and me. We clapped vigorously. We clapped loudly. We clapped long. We added a few hoots and whistles. Truth be told, there may have been a bit of a tear in the eye.

Our outsized response was directed at our son Micah, who was one of the featured players. He delivered his lines flawlessly; his timing was masterful; his stage presence was mature beyond his 14 years.

Of course, that’s probably what every parent thought about their child’s performance that evening. But our case is a bit different because Micah is deaf.

“Profoundly deaf” is the official diagnosis, but that’s just a clinical way of saying that he is really, totally deaf. The miracle of Micah, however, is that he operates completely in the world bounded by sound. He hears, he speaks, he listens to music, he enjoys television and movies. Micah’s miracle has been made possible through technology. Two cochlear implants connect him to the surrounding soundscape.

He received the first implant at UNC Hospital when he was 4 years old and the second one when he was 8. Cochlear implants are essentially tiny computers surgically implanted in the inner ear to provide sound impulses to the auditory nerve. They are bionic ears. They provide an incredible potential benefit to deaf children. However, for that potential to be realized, a lot of hard work has to be applied by the child and his caregivers. In Micah’s case, that hard work came in the form of countless hours that he and my wife spent in speech therapy at the Carolyn J. Brown Center for Acquisition of Spoken language Through Listening Enrichment (CASTLE) in Durham.

CASTLE is an expansion of the Paul W. Biggers, MD Carolina Children’s Communicative Disorders Program (CCCDP). Both CASTLE and CCCDP are part of UNC Medical School and they are to Micah what Anne Sullivan was to Helen Keller. They are a dedicated group of health care professionals who teach children and their parents how to use the powerful tools that medical science has provided so that Micah and those like him have options other than a lifetime of silence.

It is hard to describe the depth of helplessness a parent feels when faced with the unexpected news that his child is deaf. The first despondent thought I had was that I would never be able to read to Micah.  I would not be able to introduce him to Tolkien and Lewis and Wodehouse and Dr. Seuss. And what about music? How would I ever explain to him the majesty of Bach or the lyrical poetry of a Paul McCartney tune?

The folks at UNC were always encouraging but, frankly, I was not very optimistic at first. It seemed like an awfully big rock to push up a very steep mountain. Progress was slow. Micah picked up words gradually and with great effort. His younger brother soon eclipsed him on the vocabulary front.

Shell embraced the challenge full on with confidence and strength. For me, though, optimism in the face of the scope of the challenge was hard. Until, that is, one day in Church a few months after Micah’s first implant surgery when I heard him singing along with the rest of the congregation. I had never heard him sing before that moment. And as clumsy and awkward as his singing was, to me it was the most beautiful, welcome sound that I had ever heard. It was the sound of success and victory. I knew in that instant that the folks at UNC were right: this was going to work and all the time and effort was worth it.

All of that history – the combined efforts of Micah, Shell, and the rest of our family, coupled with the dedication of the audiologists, surgeons, speech language pathologists, and other folks at CCCDP and CASTLE – comes back in a flash every time Micah beats the odds and succeeds at something in the audible world: when he caught up to, and then exceeded, his peer group for vocabulary and comprehension; when he entered a conventional school on grade level; when his grades steadily increased from Bs and Cs to As and Bs; when he performed well at his piano recital; when he successfully lobbied the North Carolina legislature for funding for CASTLE; when he volunteered at CASTLE to read to the deaf children attending the pre-school program; when he read the Epistle lesson publicly in Church; and when he delivered his lines at that drama showcase last fall.

At each of these unlikely occurrences, the reality of the miracle comes palpably to mind. And we clap vigorously.
Noetic Toe

Dear kids,

As you know, I am a master of social media. Every day I tread a path through blogs, status updates, tweets, and posts. In my travels I’ve noticed that there are a lot of unhappy folks out there on the interwebs. I have also seen some trends and common themes that contribute to this unhappiness.

I would love for you to make it to your 40s or 50s and not be disappointed with the choices you have made. So I’ve compiled a brief list of guidelines — just three items, really — that seem to be common pitfalls. If you don’t follow these guidelines it’s a safe bet that at some point down the road you will wish you had. If you do follow them, you may still have adversity and challenges, but you will be better suited to weather the storms.

1. Marry the right person.
Marrying the wrong person may be the biggest single factor that causes folks regret, pain, and suffering. So, don’t do it! Be thoughtful about the process of selecting a partner. Make sure that the choice is one you can live with forever. Ask yourself important questions: Is this the person you want to raise your children? Is this the person you want to spend the next 50 years with, day after day after day …?

Most importantly, is this the person who will contribute to your peace and sanctity? That is not a typo: I was not going for “sanity”. Seriously, I chose the word “sanctity” on purpose. Will this person make you a saint? Will this relationship contribute to your transfiguration into something qualitatively better than you are alone?

You want to be able to answer yes to each of these questions. These are much better criteria than whether he or she can throw a good party, make you financially prosperous, or look good in the Christmas card photo.

Once you’ve identified a likely candidate, spend some time first making him or her your best and closest friend. Get to know this person inside and out. And after the wedding, get ready to work hard. Good marriages don’t just happen; they are made, they are forged, they are intentional. So, plan to roll up your sleeves and work at it every day or else all your forethought will be for naught.

Corollary: It goes without saying that this is a two-way street: you also have to become the right person for your chosen spouse. It is your responsibility to fulfill these criteria to him or her, full stop. There is no condition precedent. Don’t make the commitment if you can’t fulfill it.

2. Avoid unnecessary risks.
This seems fairly obvious. Apparently it is not.

The more risky behavior you engage in the more likely you will feel the sting of those risks being realized. So, just don’t. Don’t drink/text/read the paper/etc. and drive. Don’t fool around with guns. Don’t use drugs and alcohol “recreationally” (a misnomer if there ever was one). Don’t engage in irresponsible sex, which, as you know, in my book means sex outside of sacramental marriage (see point 1, above).

Any so-called “rewards” corresponding to such risks are illusory, fleeting, and, ultimately, meaningless. They never outweigh the consequences of the risks involved.

No one who has ever contracted an STD ever thought to themselves, “But the sex was so good — it was definitely worth it!” No 70-year-old ever paused to survey his life and thought, wistfully, “If only I had gotten stoned more often!” No one ever woke up in a hospital room or a jail cell the morning after a bender and wrote a thank-you note to the bartender for that last cocktail.

Risk is fine — necessary, even — when it is considered soberly and weighed appropriately. But what you are risking is your life, and your life is very valuable. Spend it well.

Speaking of spending …

3. Use money wisely.
Acquire it carefully and prudently. Keep it modestly. I know our culture uses money as the unofficial score card of success and happiness, but it’s really not. Some of the most successful, happy, self-actualized folks you will ever know are people of modest means. And, conversely, some of the least happy and least well-adjusted folks happen to be wealthy. Take a look at the entertainment section of any news website for confirmation of this.

Money and its acquisition are not the most important things in the world. But once you have it, however much you have, use it thoughtfully. Save for retirement. Save for your children’s education. Give to charity.

Avoid buying consumer goods on credit. Resist the lure of immediate gratification. Almost anything you want right this minute will still be available later when you can afford it better. And you will find that just waiting to think twice about a purchase often lends perspective on whether you really need it or not.  So practice delayed gratification. It won’t kill you and it’s a skill that you’ll find applicable to many other areas of life.

Money is a tool and you should use that tool to build something. In large part, it is the means by which you will take care of of the material needs of your family and community. You should treat it as such.

How you spend your money demonstrates your values. Money is a scarce commodity for most of us and has to be allocated across an array of wants and needs. We make choices about where it goes and those choices are very telling. You can look at anyone’s credit card bill or bank statement and know a lot about what they think is valuable. It’s all right there in their spending habits.

So, spend your money now in a way that will convince you that you are a good person when you look back across a lifetime of spending choices.

That’s it. That’s all three. It isn’t rocket science but I see problems in one or more of these categories pop up for people all the time. These are some of the pitfalls to avoid, so please do.

Enjoy your lives, live them fully, and remember that I love you.

Noetic Toe
18 March 2014 @ 09:35 pm
This week Shell and I made a quick two-day trip to Great Wolf Lodge, the huge, indoor water park resort located in Williamsburg, VA, with our four sons. (The two daughters were otherwise occupied navigating the world of high finance and navigating the world of higher education, respectively.)

The folks at GWL treated us very kindly and the warm, muggy water park was a very welcome respite from the frigid, damp winter we have been experiencing.

gwl photo 1

This trip was a Christmas gift from assorted grandparents (thank you Maw-Maw, Grandaddy, and Grammy!). It almost got overlooked in the beginning-of-the-year crush of activity. But Spring Break broke us from our misplaced priorities. We quickly booked, packed, and hit the road.

GWL Photo 2

A great time was had by all. Here's a video of Asa body-boarding down a wave heading the wrong way (the wipeout is pretty spectacular):

Here's another of the three younglings getting doused by the huge bucket in the middle of the play structure that fills up with 1,000 gallons of water and then spills down on passersby. This happens repeatedly throughout the day.

We were last at the Williamsburg incarnation of GWL in 2006. For a little reference, here are some pics from that jaunt:

GWL 2006GWL 2006 2
A lovely time was had by all — both times!
Noetic Toe

photo 3A couple of weeks ago, I started making a little batch of blood orange bourbon cherry syrup. Part 1 of this saga can be read about here.

On Thursday past, I decided the blood oranges and lime had exhausted their magic and that it was time to let the cherries do their thing. I removed the jar from its hiding place in the back of a cabinet and carefully strained the elixir clean of the fruit. A little taste told me that I was on the right track. It was sweet, spicy, and rich, with notes of vanilla and caramel still showing through the fruit. The pleasant bitterness of the citrus zest was a good counterpoint to the blood-orange's berry-citrus flavor profile.

It was good!

The yield was right at two cups. I cleaned the jar and returned the liquid to it, before dropping in the cherries, one by one.

I used frozen cherries because, well, they were available. But frozen cherries also have the benefit of being ripe, pitted, and frozen (hence the name frozen cherries). The freezing process actually helps prep the cherries for their task. Ice crystals will have gashed microscopic holes into the cherries' flesh, leaving them ready to release their juices into the bourbon as they thaw. They will then reabsorb the flavored bourbon.

The jar, now filled with frozen cherries (approximately 2 lbs.) and orange bourbon syrup, sat on the counter overnight while the cherries thawed. It is now safely back in the back of the cabinet, out of sight and out of mind for a few more weeks.

Actually, I'm not sure that it will be out of mind.

photo 4
Noetic Toe
28 February 2014 @ 12:56 am
Inspired by this Ideas in Food blog post, I decided to try my hand at a little blood orange bourbon syrup. I love the IiF blog, but they don't really post lots of details on their recipes so I had to feel my way along on this one.

I first made a rich simple syrup, infused with blood orange zest: 3/4 cup demerara sugar plus 3/4 cup water, brought to boil in a small saucepan over high heat, then simmered over low heat for about 7-10 minutes. After removing it from the burner, I added the zest of one blood orange and let it sit to cool.

Meanwhile, I measured out one cup of Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon and sliced up four blood oranges (including the one that was zested). avoiding the pithiest bits on the ends. I had a half of a lime handy, so I sliced that up as well.

The slices all went into the quart jar I had washed and ready. It was filled pretty full, but I packed more in by shaking the jar with moderate violence in order to settle things.

By this time the simple syrup was cooled and I combined it with the Bourbon. Luck was with me because the syrup measured exactly one cup and that was what I was shooting for -- equal parts Bourbon and syrup.

The Bourbon syrup mixture went into the jar filled with orange an lime slices, filling it to the absolute brim. I had to shove all the strands of zest in there but that gave me an excuse to lick my fingers. Oh, so good.

The jar is resting in the back of a cabinet for the next couple of weeks. My plan is to then strain out the blood orange slices, return the elixir to the bottle with, say, a pound of excellent frozen cherries, return the bottle to the back of the cabinet, and see what happens over time.

I think this is going to be the crowing glory of one heck of an Old Fashioned.
Noetic Toe
18 February 2014 @ 02:50 pm
David Bentley Hart has forcefully observed that World War I was the beginning of the end of Western culture. The period that immediately followed the Great War was one last gasp, the final plateau before momentum carried things over the cliff—before Nazism, World War II, the Iron Curtain, the Cold War, and post-modernism finally stormed their way through the rest of the twentieth century, exacting much and leaving precious little unravaged or untouched.

The dismantling took some time, of course, and in the period between the World Wars one could still see the remnants of what came before. In that milieu 18-year-old Englishman Patrick Leigh Fermor decided that he would take an epic walkabout across Europe, starting at the Hook of Holland and finishing at Constantinople. A Time of Gifts is the first chapter of Fermor's three-part memoir of this journey.

Fermor began his trek in December 1934, the same year Hitler came to power in Germany. Fermor had recently left school in Canterbury (at the school's suggestion) and completed his studies privately in London. He briefly considered a military career, but concluded that a writer's life better fit his tastes and talents. But the path of an artiste is fraught with difficulties and young Paddy, as he was known, found himself floundering for something to write about.

Inspiration soon hit. He needed a change of scenery. In his words:

[I decided to] abandon London and England and set out across Europe like a tramp—or, as I characteristically phrased it to myself, like a pilgrim .... All of a sudden, this was not merely the obvious, but the only thing to do. I would travel on foot, sleep in hayricks in summer, shelter in barns when it was raining or snowing and only consort with peasants and tramps. If I lived on bread and cheese and apples, jogging along on fifty pounds a year ... there would even be some cash left over for paper and pencils and an occasional mug of beer. A new life! Freedom! Something to write about!

As it turns out, Fermor did not limit himself to peasants, tramps, hayricks, and barns, although they do play their part. The upper classes were often as hospitable as the farmers, and Paddy found both barn doors and schloss portcullises opened to him in cheerful hospitality.

The book covers Fermor's journey through Holland, Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. He is on foot most of the way, so his observations are intimate and immediate, full of closeup detail. It is a hi-res, macro lens chronicle of the people, places, adventures, and mis-adventures Fermor encounters along the way. The picture he paints is charming and entertaining, leaving one satisfied but perhaps a little wistful, given the reader's vantage point eighty years out. Fermor's good luck, good humor, and insatiable intellectual curiosity are great traveling companions for those who will only ever take this journey vicariously.

As engaging as the story is, however, the real star of this book is the writing. Fermor's prose is elegant, erudite, and evocative. It rings with wit and demonstrates a mastery of the craft that is rarely seen among popular writers today (even the "good" ones). Aspiring authors would do well to read Fermor, if only to see what they should be striving for.

The style and tone strike a familiar note, often reminiscent of the great P.G. Wodehouse. In fact, Fermor gives a nod to Plum when recounting his stay at Schloss Bruchsal, a stunning Baroque palace on the Upper Rhine. At the time of Fermor's visit it was the home of the Burgomasters of Bruchsal. Fermor describes one of his evenings there thus:

After a long bath, I explored [my host's] collection of Tauchnitz editions and found exactly what I wanted to read in bed—Leave it to Psmith—and soon I wasn't really in a German schloss at all, but in the corner seat of a first-class carriage on the 3:45 from Paddington to Market Blandings, bound for a different castle.

The book ends on Holy Saturday, 1935, with Paddy lingering in the middle of a footbridge across the Danube River, the border between Czechoslovakia and Hungary. The solemnity of the day's commemoration coupled with the beauty of the surroundings give him reason to pause in contemplation.

The account continues in Between the Woods and the Water and concludes in The Broken Road, which was unfinished at the time of Fermor's death in 2011, but has been completed from his diaries and notes. It was finally published last year. Fermor not only reaches his destination at Constantinople, but continues his journey to the Orthodox monastic enclave of Mt. Athos.

I look forward to rejoining him on his pilgrimage as soon as Amazon.com can make a delivery.