Re-Potting Penelope: A Scientist’s Vindication and Random Meditations

Penelope was an orchid that I brought to the Vanderbilt University Medical School Emeritus Office to decorate our conference room.  Our secretary named her. Dr. Bud Friesinger, former head of the Gerontology unit in the Department of Medicine, loved her. I got the impression that he’d never before enjoyed an orchid, close up.

Bud had been a World War II Marine, and we were delighted to learn that we had both known another World War II Marine, Brigadier General Buck Schmuck. I met Buck at parties in Sheridan, Wyoming, where he was visiting friends. His main home in retirement was Hawaii. A good many former servicemen lived in Hawaii, close to the Pacific Islands that they had fought so hard to hold or win back. General Schmuck had received the Navy Cross and two Silver Stars for his heroic actions.

Bud Friesinger went to medical school after his military service, becoming not only a physician but also a scientist. One of his theories was that the human organism had a natural life span of 84 years. Beyond that, it was all down hill and fast.  I did not agree with Bud because my target is a good deal farther out. I plan to survive until seeing further support for my predictions about the fertility rate and, echoing the late Physics Professor [University of Colorado, Boulder] Al Bartlett and California attorney David Durham, about the necessity of populations restraining growth to within the carrying capacity of the environment on which they depend. No population can exceed for long the carrying capacity of its environment without paying a heavy, heavy penalty.

When the carrying capacity is exceeded, the underlying resources on which life depends are degraded.  The degraded environment then supports fewer individuals on a sustainable basis.  The carrying capacity spirals downward; hardship increases; mortality rates rise. Ireland in the nineteenth century is a European example. In Al Bartlett’s words, “Nature bats last.”

My ideas extend further, into the realm of social and political arrangements that will accompany the process of population growth pressuring the carrying capacity of the environment. I expect increasing polarization between rich and poor.  And I expect tyranny.

Is the US skating frighteningly near the edge where it will be harder, much harder, to recover our Freedoms?

[Mis]Using Patriot Act authority, Attorney General Merritt Garland authorized the FBI to surveil parents who protested actions taken by their local School Boards.

One also reads that a cover-up of possible election fraud in Arizona would have succeeded but for the courage of a County Clerk.  That courageous woman then found herself in the cross-hairs of an FBI investigation.

Is this Patriot Act authorization being used again?  That Act was passed after 9/11.  All along it has been feared that it would be used inappropriately, to surveil Americans.

In light of the danger of exceeding the carrying capacity, one can understand grandchildren’s motives for deciding to forgo childbearing. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to ask what difference can their decision make?

A person might first say that it is inconsistent to have children while at the same time closing the national border against refugees because they add to the country’s total population.  I say, borrowing from Winston Churchill, that consistency is the bugaboo of small minds. But that is too facile an answer.

I also ask, do a country’s Citizens have rights that foreigners do not? Centuries of tradition say yes, they do. And should.

Next, address equivalency. Some say that each life has equivalent value to every other life. I say not, because I honor, give precedence, to merit and my European heritage. Some people make a difference, a positive difference, to the societies in which they live.

Making a positive difference requires both will and ability. The will to succeed while doing no harm to others in the process may be evenly distributed across humans. I do not know. But athletic, intellectual, and relationship talents are not evenly distributed.  Deny that if you can!

Intellectual ability implies a potential for helping to solve the existential problems, including carrying capacity issues that plague every country in the world. So I value most those who have special intellectual ability. American citizens are equal with respect to the rule of law, all humans are equal in the natural rights to life and Liberty, but all humans are not equal in outcomes or ability. I commit the sin of thinking this, if it is a sin, while guarding against the sin of false equivalency.

So if a couple seems likely to have a child who can compete successfully in the trying pots of life, who can possibly profit from learning in the halls of Harvard, Stanford, or Vanderbilt, why should this couple surrender their opportunity to have children?  Their child might be the one who is at the right place at the right time to meaningfully help solve their country’s or even the world’s problems. While it is almost certainly true that most people will never have that ability, that potential.

Certainly I am an elitist. That makes me a realist in some respects, too.

Summing up what my life has meant, the answer is not so much.  The negatives are many.  The positives are that I gave birth to four children. All have a strong appreciation of reality. All of them know how, and are willing, to set priorities. All support all Americans’ rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. None of them is mean.

One is also known for one’s enemies, so I am extra proud that in 2012 the Southern Poverty Law Center named me one of the 30 most dangerous people in the United States.  By then I was almost 80 and very, very mild. I am proud that my husband says I am polite but not mild.

My identity, all said and done, is scientist. I have tried to present the data honestly and my failing, so once said a friend, is in the way I present the data. Less harshly might have worked better. More words, more circumlocutions. Perhaps I should have listened.

Scientists care deeply about being proven right.  Bud Friesinger may have died in order to support his theory that the natural life span of humans is 84 years. No more, or not much more than 84 years. I do not agree.

The facts are: Bud turned 84 still appearing to be his strong, handsome and vital self. I wanted to tease him about being a negative case for his hypothesis. I thank Heaven for a hand over my mouth or deciding that good manners required me to wait and see. At about 84 years and four months of age, Bud was diagnosed with a fatal and inoperable condition. Within four weeks, he died, age 84.

A mutual friend in the Emeritus Office visited Bud in those last days and offered to carry a message from me. I said, “Please tell Bud that I repotted Penelope”.  Our friend reported back that this was the only time he saw Bud smile. Death happens. But Life in its many forms rolls on when someone pushes on it just a little.

8 replies
  1. Lady Strange
    Lady Strange says:

    Even though they’re very affordable now, orchids are like Siamese cats – once you’ve owned one, you can’t live without it.

  2. WCH
    WCH says:

    Well written. I plan on living to 110 plus. I have spent 50 years diligently studying life extension science. I never eat plants.

  3. Bobby
    Bobby says:

    Thank you for this gem of an essay Ms. Abernethy.

    “Summing up what my life has meant, the answer is not so much.”

    “None of them is mean.”

    “One is also known for one’s enemies, so I am extra proud that in 2012 the Southern Poverty Law Center named me one of the 30 most dangerous people in the United States. By then I was almost 80 and very, very mild. I am proud that my husband says I am polite but not mild.”

    If the above were the only two things that you did Ms. Abernethy, just those two things, well, that is awesome – you are a legend big time! And of course, you have done an enormous amount more.

  4. Jaime Jonas
    Jaime Jonas says:

    Given a x amount of calories require to sustain a/one Human being..what is the maximum amount of population/s that the planet can provide for?? Human/Animal/plant populations? When animal species which are NOT a sources of food for people, which reach point of extinction why should we keep them alive? are we in direct competition for resources with animal species? what animals are a net consumers/loss for the planet? some turtles live to be 100yrs+ old for what purpose? in some countries Cow milk is very expensive but people would absolutely refuse any otrher form of animal Milk why ? in some poor countries the price of cow beef is skyhigh..but they would never eat (overpopulations) of bunny/ducks/wild boars….I met an old lady collecting SSecurity..she told me she was going to borrow $5K from the bank to give her cat surgery……what??? why??

    • Clownworld Observer
      Clownworld Observer says:

      How true: all very serious issues that need urgent clarification! “Please tell Bud that I repotted Penelope.” (Unfortunately, it will forever remain hidden from us whether “Penelope’s” love for Bud also matched the same intensity?) It is hard to imagine the terrible fate of all the helpless plants that we added to our mundane food consumption. Only representatives of our kind seem to be capable of the cultural achievement to “humanize” even plants. In the moment, all LARPers want to be animals, but also an authentic existence as a potted plant needs finally social acceptance!

      The dream of eternal life is presumably based on the unspoken refusal to give one’s place to the following generations, which one neglected oneself in favor of one’s own narcissism. Childlessness represents not only a biological unnaturalness, but also a demographic time bomb, not least evident in Mao’s one-child marriage population policy. Apart from the pathological overprotection of this (if at all) only child, in the case of premature death of this child, without having already produced offspring themselves, an entire family and its name dies out with it.

  5. Some Visitor
    Some Visitor says:

    When Germans hear “Bud,” they usually think of Bud Spencer (spaghetti western hero) or Budweiser (in that order), which is supposed to be an American kind of “beer”. Dr. Friesinger bore a German surname.

    My guess is that this name has nothing to do with Friesians because of its southern German ending “-inger”, but is only a variation of Freisinger. There is also a “right-wing populist” politician of the name (with a y) in Switzerland (son of an Austrian father).

    The Swiss Jew media dedicated a documentary film to him called “Oskar, the Pied Piper” (Oskar, der Rattenfänger) because of his success. A Jewess named Martine Brunschwig Graf targeted him for an allegedly “forbidden” flag in his own basement.

    TV “duels” between media Jews like this dis-
    gusting Schawinski and Oskar unforgotten.

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