Rediscovering Carmine Pennella… After 43 Years

“I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. It might even be the greatest of arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”

John Steinbeck

Steinbeck said it well, and I’ve come to believe that the most endearing of the great-artist teachers he speaks of (especially among children and teens in a public school environment) are those who communicate more than just facts and knowledge to their students. The best teachers recognize and seize opportunities to express warmth and compassion for individual souls.

I’m not talking about gushy emotionalism here, but of a truly caring humanity that connects with individual students on a personal level in small but meaningful ways. This often happens without the student (or even the teacher) fully realizing the positive impact they’re making at the time, or the long-term impact their actions may have in the lives they are touching.

With the best of these artists, all of this happens naturally and it is, at root, an expression of love. All of which brings me to my high school English teacher, Carmine Pennella. Forty-three years ago he was “Mr. Pennella ” to me.  These days he is “Carm.” 

Carmine Pennella, English Department Head, Moravia Central School, in 1975

Although Carm lives only a few miles from me, I have seen him only a few times since high school and our conversations were brief. That changed, however,  a few days ago as you can see in the photo at the top of this blog post. The picture shows my wife, Marlene, with Carm on one side of the table (Marlene and I were in the same class in high school). Marlene’s nephew, Jeff, and I are on the other side. We are at the Glenside Diner in Moravia, NY. We had just finished a meal, and had a very nice visit. I asked the waitress (who also happens to be my daughter-in-law) to take our picture.

Carm is now 82 years old. His wife of 52 years, Josepha, also a teacher, passed away after a long illness in 2013. 

It was Jeff who orchestrated our little reunion. Carm was his teacher too. Jeff was visiting from Colorado for a week, staying at Carm’s place and helping with some carpentry projects.. 

I posted the Diner photo to my 1976 class reunion Facebook group (46 members). There was lots of acknowledgement and a few comments. My old classmate, Bob Sovocool, wrote: “Carmine Pennella. The one guy who really helped me in school.” It is a comment I can relate to.

There were, of course, a few other teachers (two, to be precise) who took some interest in me and, in so doing, helped me. But it was Mr. Penella who seemed to see some latent qualities in me, and who was truly helpful . Perhaps it was that essay I wrote on composting privies. I’m not really sure.

Yours truly. My 1976 yearbook picture.

In 11th grade, Mr. Pennella nominated me for Boy’s State. Only one boy from our school  could go. As I recall, it was the teachers who decided who that boy would be. I didn’t even know what Boys State was at the time, and I didn’t know Carm nominated me until after Charlie Wright had been chosen. Charlie was probably the better choice (he went on to West Point) but he was also the obvious choice. Just knowing that Carm had nominated me was, in itself, an honor as far as I was concerned.

Another positive event was Project Advance. It was a new idea at the time. A pilot project, I suppose. A group of select high school students could earn college credits in English while still in high school. I was not an honor-society student but Carm wanted me in Project Advance. My parents came up with the money. It was a great experience. 

I remember a couple of things in particular about Project Advance. First, we took field trips to several plays (and even went out to dinner at a nice restaurant after one of them). Second, I wrote my first book while in Project Advance. I am writing now with a smile on my face at the thought of that book, and of Mr. Pennella’s words to me after I turned the project in. It was a children’s book, which I illustrated. I will “publish” it in my next blog post (stay tuned).

Marlene’s 1976 yearbook picture. We were married 4 years later.

The last story about how Mr. Pennella helped back in high school is the most endearing to me. It has to do with my desire to go to The Sterling School (now Sterling College) in Vermont after high school. I needed a letter of recommendation from a teacher. I asked Mr. Pennella if he would write the letter. He was glad to do it. But as the last days of my senior year in high school were drawing to a close, I had heard nothing from Sterling. I was getting concerned.

It was at the end of school one day when I told this to Mr. Pennella. He expressed surprise that I had not heard anything from Sterling. He told me me to wait while he went to the guidance office. He called Vermont. I waited.

Carm returned a short while later, with his thumb up and a big smile on his face. “You’re in.” he said. I’ll never forget it.

Mr. Pennella went to bat for me. He cared. He has always been a special person to me for doing that. It was a powerful relief at that time to know I had gotten into that school. 

So, with those things in mind, you can imagine what a good visit we had with Carm over a meal at the diner. It turns out that he has kept track of me, so to speak, over the years. He knew about a lot of the things I’ve done since high school. And he doesn’t even have internet!

But that reunion at the diner is not the end of this story. Jeff and Carm invited Marlene and I over to Carm’s house for dinner two days later. Carm lives in a classic old farm house that he bought in the 1970s and has beautifully restored. It is a home like you might find in a living history museum, like Sturbridge Village.

The food was great (Marlene told me the next day that she considered it a 5-star meal) and so was the conversation. We had a chance to meet some of Carm’s family and we had a truly delightful time. Carm gave me a short ride in his vintage Jaguar. I got to know him like I never knew him in high school. That’s kind of special. And there is something else special in this reunion…

Carm alluded to it later in the evening, outdoors, with the fireflies blinking around us. Simply put, I am a conservative, while he is a liberal. I don’t know the depth of his liberal worldview and it really doesn’t matter to me. On a human level, I think it’s safe to say that we have a mutual respect and an appreciation for each other that transcends any political, cultural, and religious belief differences. I like that. A lot.

The day after our memorable meal I realized that I had left my hat at Carm’s house. I stopped over to pick it up. I didn’t intend to stay long, but I was there awhile. There was more good conversation. I asked Carm if he would mind if I blogged about all of this. It is, after all, a good story. He had no objections. Jeff took our picture…

Me, Carm, and Gracie. Summer, 2019

As I reflect back on these recent dinners and discussions it occurs to me that Carm is still an example of the great-artist-teacher mentioned in John Steinbeck’s quote at the beginning of this essay, and I am still learning.

As a person prone to introversion, I am impressed with the kindness, the generosity, and the hospitality that I’ve seen and experienced in our recent meetings. I am not, mind you, surprised by such things. Those qualities were in Carm 43 years ago. It is just refreshing to see them now in a new and different light.

Carm would say our reunion is serendipity. I am more inclined to think it is providential. Whatever the case, I’m thankful for Carm Penella and the blessing he has been in my life.

I’m Cranking Out YouTube Garden Videos

Fresh peas & potatoes from my Minibed garden, with cream and butter. Not Keto-diet-approved, but we make an exception for homegrown food like this.

My Minibed garden this year is not the best, primarily because of a wet and cold spring. But Marlene and I are now eating from the garden some every day. My garden, and the homegrown food it produces (like you see above) not only nourishes our bodies on the heavenstretch, but satisfies our fundamental agrarian longings.

My desire to share the joys of gardening (Minibed gardening in particular) and hopefully inspire others in their gardening pursuits are my motivation for posting a recent rash of YouTube videos. Here they are, along with an update on my new chicken tractor…

I’ve also posted about some beautiful garlic Minibeds in Wisconsin at my Minibed Gardening Blog. Here’s a picture from that blog post (CLICK HERE TO READ THE STORY)…

I Finally Build A Suscovich Chicken Tractor!

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“Some younger people don’t aspire to doing much with their life. Most, however, probably aspire to getting some sort of good-paying job working for someone else, putting in their 40 hours a week and, hopefully, getting ahead. 

And then there are those few who make things happen for themselves; they catch a vision for a desired way of life or an entrepreneurial enterprise (or both), then pursue the vision with vigor and passion. They work long days, with dogged determination, to make it happen. They harness initiative and creativity. Such people almost always eventually achieve the goals they seek. And, all along the way, their example inspires others.

I believe John Suscovich is one of those people. I want to introduce you to this young man and what he is doing…”

The Deliberate Agrarian Blog Post, November 2013

Thus began an article I wrote nearly six years ago (click HERE to read it). In that article I introduced my readers to John Suscovich’s new chicken tractor design, and the plans he was selling.

John was doing what I had done with my Whizbang chicken plucker plan book back in 2002. Some people thought it was unethical for me to create a product and try to sell it on the internet. They expected me to make it available for free. I don’t know what those sorts of people do to support their families, but I’m sure they don’t do it for free.

Fortunately, there were other people back then who took an interest in my plan book and helped spread the word. Richard Freudenberger at BackHome magazine was one of them. And Countryside magazine featured it, as did some smaller publications.

So, I had no problem at all with helping John Suscovich spread the word about his chicken tractor plans. And I mentioned in the article that I wanted to build a Suscovich Chicken Tractor myself.

Well, all these years later, I’m pleased to see that John Suscovich is still creating products and helping people raise poultry. His web site, Farm Marketing Solutions is a great resource, and His YouTube Channel is an inspiring endeavor.

And, all these years later, I have finally made myself a chicken tractor that is inspired by John’s design….

My Speech & Prayer At The Horse Barn Wedding

My oldest son got married last July. That’s him and his wife above. My son is named after me, but we call him Chaz. His wife’s name is Kimmy. The wedding and reception were at a horse stable that has been converted into an event center. It was a real nice place.

Have you noticed that a lot less people are getting married in churches these days? What’s with that? None of my three sons were married in a church. I’m just thankful they were married by clergymen.

Marriage is a serious thing. And I’m a serious person. Fact is I’ve gotten a lot more serious with age. It’s not a bad thing. In the book of Titus in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul says that “the aged men” should “be sober, grave, temperate, sound in faith, in charity, in patience.” Which is to say, when you hit the heavenstretch you need to be serious.

So, when Chaz and Kimmy asked me if I would say the prayer at their reception, I took it seriously. I really didn’t want to stand up in front of a bunch of mostly-strangers and say a prayer, but one doesn’t get this kind of opportunity very often. And the opportunity to say a prayer meant the opportunity to give a little bit of a speech before the prayer. No one said I could or should do that. I just did it.

Kimmy’s dad gave a speech and it was a fine speech, with lots of humor, and it ended on a serious note (I like her dad a lot). My youngest son, James, as best man, gave a speech. It was also a fine speech, with lots of humor. Here’s a picture of James giving his speech…

My three sons, from the left, Robert, James and Chaz.

As for my speech (and prayer) it was all serious. No humor at all. And even though the audience was mostly secular, my sentiments were decidedly Christian. In the end, I just gotta be me. 🙂

Microphone in hand, all serious, and my son’s friend, Ian, appears to be listening seriously.

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The Speech

“Chaz & Kimmy have asked me to say a prayer at this time, and I’m going to do that, but I’m going to take this opportunity to first impart some fatherly counsel in the form of a short commentary about life and marriage, beginning with four observations, which I like to refer to as “The Other Facts Of Life”…

  1. Life is hard, and the older we get, the harder life gets.
  2. Life is often not fair. At least from our human perspective it is not fair.
  3. Life is short. The Bible tells us that our life here on earth is like a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. 
  4. We live in a very troubled, stressful world.

These are four realities of life that we all face. And there is nothing much that any of us can do to change these realities.

And there is a saying…”That which we can not change, we must endure.”

BUT… And this is the good news… the slings and arrows of life are a whole lot easier to endure when we are married, AND when we have a proper marriage. Which is to say, a marriage as God intended it to be.

That is, the union of a man and a woman who covenant together as partners and teammates. Two people who, before God and man, commit to the well being of the family they create, and to helping each other with the hardships of life.. all the way to the end.

Now, unfortunately, as we all know, it doesn’t always work out that way for a lot of marriages. But it does for some, and marriages as God intended them to be are a powerfully endearing thing to see. There is a lot to be said for lifelong commitment.

But, make no mistake about it, a truly successful marriage does not happen naturally. It happens only with shared foresight, determination, and wisdom.  

In the final analysis, the ideal of marriage as God intended it to be, is not necessarily easy. But if an ideal (Of ANY Good Kind) resonates with you, the difficulty of attaining it is no excuse for not pursuing it.

So it is, Chaz and Kimmy, that I am pleased to see you pursuing this good and worthy ideal of marriage!

Now, I’m going to pray for God’s blessings upon you, and upon this celebration.”

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The Prayer

“Lord God Almighty… You are the source of all, and you are soveriegn over all. You created and ordained this human institution of marriage. You intended marriage to be something positive and beautiful. And in your Word you have given us the wisdom we all need to achieve a marriage that not only perseveres and endures, but a marriage that brings joy and blessings. I thank you for that.

And I thank you for bringing Chaz and Kimmy together. I thank you for the commitment they have publicly made to each other here today. I ask now that your grace, and your mercy would flow into this mariage union.  I ask that you would give Chaz and Kimmy a long-term vision for the marriage adventure that lies before them. I pray that a spirit of wisdom would permeate this marriage. Not worldly wisdom that is ever-changing, and so often leads us astray, but the transcendent, never-changing wisdom that comes from you.

Lord, I lift this marriage up to you and ask that you would help Chaz and Kimmy to see, and understand, and always remember, that they are, like all of us, naturally inclined to selfishness, impatience, and so many other human character flaws that so often conspire to weaken a marriage. I pray that, in realizing this, Chaz and Kimmy would strive to always be kind, and respectful, and forgiving of each other…. Always forgiving.

I pray, Lord, that Chaz and Kimmy’s home would be a haven of peace (not discord). A haven of mutual kindness, and mutual gentleness, and mutual empathy, and mutual respect, and mutual forgiveness (always forgiveness). A haven of all that is true and truly worthy in the midst of this troubled and stressful world we live in. 

In short, I pray, Lord, that the home and the marriage that Chaz and Kimmy pursue and create together will be a place of love; of intentional, ever-vigilant, tenacious love. And that this love will be a tremendous blessing not only to Chaz and Kimmy, but to their children, to their grandchildren (unto the generations that follow), to their parents, and to all who know them. 

And finally, I ask, Lord, that you would bless this food that we’re eating here today, and the time we have here together. I pray that everyone will be safe, and that good memories will be made.

I pray this all now, Lord God Almighty, with hope, and faith, believing that you are the only wise God, and that you hear and answer the prayers of all who humble themselves before you and call on your name, as I am now doing. 

And I pray this all now in the name of your beloved son, Jesus Christ. Amen.”

Chaz & Kimmy were married by a Methodist minister. A very nice fellow (and serious).
This is me with my little sister at the wedding. She has Multiple Sclerosis.
My son Robert in the middle, with his brother-in-law, Tristan in the checked shirt. My grandson, Futureman, is in the white shirt. He is Chaz’s son from a previous marriage.
Marlene and me on the dance floor. I wish the photo was not so blurry.

Green-Weed Mulching In The Minibed Garden

This year my entire garden is in Minibeds. I don’t expect to ever garden any other way. This is my 3rd year of Minibed gardening, and I couldn’t be more satisfied.

The only thing I can foresee that would change my approach to having a Minibed kitchen-garden would be severe economic hard times, like a full-scale Depression. In that case, I would fire up my BCS tiller and plant my entire yard. I would also probably plant a crop of potatoes in the top section of my field, which is well out of sight and somewhat inaccessible.

If there is no gas for the tiller, hand tools will suffice. I have long recommended Steve Solomon’s book, Gardening When it Counts, as one of the best all-around gardening books out there, and it gives excellent advice for gardening with hand tools only, just in case the tiller breaks, or there is no gas.

The Depression scenario, or something akin to it, is always a possibility, and it makes perfect sense to have a plan for that sort of thing. But in the meantime, “Minibeds Make Me Happy” ( I may get a t-shirt with that printed on it). 🙂

Here is my latest video about Minibed Gardening

The Keto Lifestyle For Better Health: Our Story

Last year around this time, Marlene and I were on the Whole 30 diet. We also did some intermittent fasting. Now we have progressed to the ketogenic diet. If you have an interest in knowing what a keto diet is, and why it is becoming so popular, Dr. Ken Berry explains it very well in this 12-minute video.

Marlene is more serious about her keto diet than I am. She tells me I’m not “pure keto.” But I have given up consuming all insulin-spiking sugars (including maple syrup) and all grain carbs. That is significant for me. I’m comfortable with my “lazy keto” diet, which is to say that I take the diet seriously but I’m not obsessively precise about my macros (and I’ve forgotten what a macro is).

There is a good reason that my wife is enthusiastic about the keto diet. It’s a story worth telling…

Marlene and I have both been blessed with very good health, but she has had a variety of post-menopausal concerns, with one of those concerns being high triglycerides. High triglycerides are a precursor to heart disease. They are a warning sign. 

For at least five years Marlene tried to get her triglycerides down without resorting to synthetic drugs and pharmaceutical dependency. She pursued all sorts of “natural” protocols, including various diets (like the Whole 30 diet) and all manner of supplements. She consulted with different doctors. She spent a lot of money. Every few weeks she would get a blood test to monitor her triglyceride number.

A normal triglyceride level is less than 150 milligrams per deciliter. Borderline high is 150 to 199. High is 200 to 499. Marlene’s triglyceride level held fast at around 275. It wouldn’t budge, no matter what.

But my wife is the kind of person who researches things. She understands that when it comes to our own health, every one of us needs to take responsibility. We need to be proactive. We need to be our own health advocate. Going to a doctor and getting pills to “fix” a chronic health problem is very often not the best solution. 

If someone has a properly functioning brain, and the motivation to help themselves, there is a world of information, ideas, and possible solutions “out there” to be found and applied. I’m talking about solutions that the average medical professional may not know, or may be ignorantly biased against. Solutions like, for example, the ketogenic diet.

After researching the Keto diet, Marlene decided to give it a serious try. Her doctor was skeptical. 

After five weeks of eating keto, Marlene got a blood test. It showed that her triglyceride number had dropped from 277 (on her previous blood test) to 113. That steep decline amounted to total victory over high triglycerides. A ketogenic diet was the only possible reason for such a radical drop. 

Her doctor expressed amazement. She told Marlene there was no reason to schedule another appointment.

That kind of result is pretty amazing, and it falls in line with everything Dr. Berry says in the video above. A lot of people go on a ketogenic diet to lose weight, and the diet works remarkably well for that, but it is also a diet with numerous amazing health benefits.

What I find particularly nice about the keto “way of life” (it’s not a fad diet) is that it is profoundly contra industrial. No processed foods are consumed. No pills, powders, shakes or other commercial stuff is required. It is fundamentally simple to understand.

The picture at the top of this page shows a salad I made for myself when Marlene went to Costa Rica with her sister for 10 days earlier this year. That was my big meal of the day every day that she was gone. Greens, nuts, cheese, olives, sardines, cottage cheese. That’s my kind of keto diet.

I have, admittedly, strayed a couple of times since I transitioned to the keto diet earlier this year. For example, when my daughter-in-law gave me an apple pie for father’s Day. It was downright good. But I don’t see myself ever going back to a regular diet that includes insulin-spiking grain carbs and insulin-spiking sugars.

In a future blog post I’ll tell you the story about a lifetime keto diet study done on a group of people (keto, as a diet protocol, has been around since the early 1900s). When I heard the story (I was listening to an audio book) I resolved to switch to a keto diet the next day. Yes, it was that compelling.

Minibed Strawberry Keto Shortcake… For Breakfast.

I planted my first strawberry bed when I was 17 years old. That would have been 1975. It was a fairly large and ambitious project at the time and the first harvest (the following year) was spectacular. My mother and I spent a lot of hours picking , preparing, and packaging berries for the freezer.

Smoothies had not yet been invented in 1975 so, as I recall, my mother made a lot of strawberry shortcake for the next couple of years— always with a very generous amount of fresh whipped cream.

We got our milk from a local farmer back then. We would take our containers to the milk house when we needed milk and get it from the bulk tank. The farmer grew crops on my parent’s land (maybe 5 or 6 acres). I don’t think any money changed hands.

The cream would rise to the top of the containers, and my mother would skim it off. We had lots of fresh cream.

These days I’m growing strawberries in my Minibed garden. I have three beds with four strawberry plants in each. It doesn’t sound like much, but last year I harvested a total of 14 pounds and 11.5 ounces of fresh berries over a 9-day stretch (from June 10 to 27). I’m not keeping track of this year’s yield, but I’m sure it is comparable.

So, for just a little work (Minibeds are a cinch to care for) Marlene and I get lots of beautiful berries for a deliciously enjoyable stretch of time. It’s a real treat.

We had the strawberry shortcake you see in the picture above for breakfast yesterday. Rather than make whipped cream, Marlene just poured a little heavy cream over the top. That’s not as good as my mother’s homemade whipped cream, but it’s easier, and there is no sugar, which is something we are avoiding (more about this shortly).

When our boys were young and at home with us, we got our milk from a local woman with just a few cows. These days we get heavy cream from our local dairy. We are regular customers at the dairy. It’s owned by local people and we prefer to buy local when we have that option.

Marlene and I use a lot more butter, cream, and cheese than we used to. That’s because we are both on a ketogenic diet. I transitioned to “keto’ back on March 3rd. Marlene has been on a keto diet for quite a bit longer. In my next blog post I will briefly tell you why we are on the keto diet, and recommend an excellent 12-minute video that introduces the diet. For now, suffice it to say, no sugar, almost no carbs… that’s keto.

The shortcake in the picture above was made according to a keto recipe. It’s actually an English muffin recipe, made with almond flour and coconut flour. No wheat flour, or any other grains, are part of the ketogenic diet.

It was less than an hour from picking to eating. The strawberries were the star attraction, and they did not disappoint.

Do you grow strawberries? Did your mother make whipped cream? Do you like shortcake with strawberries?