"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, July 20, 2015

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary–Or How To Prosper In A Contentious World

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and
cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.

Mary, Mary Quite Contrary

         William Wallace Denslow

Mary Quinlan had been quite contrary as a child; so much so in fact that her mother wondered where this willful, determined, and stubborn girl had come from. She refused everything – her stewed tomatoes, her Gerber’s lamb, the Dutch rattle that her Aunt Ida had given her, the little African doll with pigtails, her new shoes, and the bag of colored barrettes placed by her pillow after her first baby tooth had fallen out.  She said ‘No’ to everything seemingly despite herself. She fussed when her mother tried to put her in the highchair; kicked and squirmed as her mother forced her legs and arms into the padded snowsuit she had ordered from L.L.Bean.  She ripped off her cute Oshkosh B’Gosh overalls, ripped half the pages out of A Child’s Garden Book of Verse, and kicked her toy piano down the stairs.

“No”, she shouted. “No, no, no, no NO!”

Her mother tried everything – sweetness, cajoling, threats, and on her especially bad days, intimidation; but nothing seemed to work.  Mary would only do what she wanted to do when she wanted to do it. Her father added a clasp to the zipper on her snowsuit, and put a small travel lock on it to keep her from opening it and squirming out of it. He rigged her highchair with a special hasp so that she could not push the tray table up over her head and spill the peas, diced Gruyere, and bacon bits all over the floor.

In preparation for her homecoming from the hospital, Mary’s father set up the crib with a fanciful Italian mobile, one with playful Venetian masks and unicorns.  The music box played a Strauss waltz and the movement of the pieces kept time.  Every time he put her down in the crib and turned on the mobile, Mary started to howl, a saucer-tongued piercing wail, louder it seemed than any other baby in the neighborhood.  At first Mary’s parents thought she had a dirty diaper, colic, or a rash; but when she turned out as dry, unchafed, clean, and smooth as ever, they could only conclude that she had ‘distemper’ – their joking dog word for a persistent irritability.

It was bad enough that she howled for most of the day; but her poor parents never got a good night’s sleep because she never slept.  When they thought that they had finally coaxed her to sleep and started to tiptoe out the room, Mary startled, started to scream again. It was hopeless.  There was nothing Mary’s parents could do that pleased her, calmed her, or placated her.

Her Terrible Twos were more terrible than any of the children in her playgroup, her neighborhood playmates, or little friends at the beach. No matter what anyone offered – a bright new bucket and shovel; a sand carriage; or a pretty sunbonnet, Mary kicked them, buried them in the sand, and peed on them. 

There was a little girl,

Who had a little curl,

Right in the middle of her forehead.

When she was good,

She was very good indeed,

But when she was bad she was horrid.

Image result for images girl with a curl who was horrid


“What are we going to do?”, her mother despairingly asked her father. “I am at my wits end.”

After the child psychologist they selected had done his initial assessment of Mary, he said, “Yes, you do indeed have a very willful girl here.”  Her parents could see that their daughter had apparently reached up to the psychologist’s desk and scattered all his papers, photos of his family,and antique pen set onto the floor.

“Fine”, said Mary’s father. “We already know that.  What are you going to do about it?”

The psychologist had never been spoken to so dismissively; but like any good professional, he took the parents’ attitude into account when he made his final evaluation. Given such an obstinate, difficult girl, it was no wonder that the parents were ready to throttle her.

Needless to say, professional counseling did not good at all, and after a few months the psychologist said that he was sorry, but he had to withdraw from the case. “Unless you want to try a pharmacological solution”, he offered. Absolutely not, both parents replied almost at once.  No Ritalin, uppers or downers for Mary.  They would find a way that was to them morally and ethically acceptable. She was their child after all, complete with their genes and their environment, so it was their responsibility to sort her out without artificial help.

After she had spent a month in kindergarten, the teacher asked for a meeting and pleaded with Mary’s parents to put her on drugs. “Otherwise, I am not sure I can handle her”, the teacher said. “Help me out here”, she pleaded; but the Quinlans still refused the drug route.  The principal intervened and, respecting the parents’ wishes moved Mary from class to class to see if she could find a match.  No dice.  The girl was just as disruptive and misbehaved regardless of teacher, classmates, or setting.

Mary, however, was a very bright and talented girl; and by the time she got to the third grade she was doing unusual extracurricular work.  While her classmates were still fooling around with simple arithmetic, Mary, fascinated with birds of prey, did a paper on the phylogeny of raptors.  The teacher was amazed that such a little girl could grasp the concept of ‘parallel evolution’.  “An owl is a raptor”, Mary explained, “but not a bird of prey”. She was quite right, the teacher discovered.  Owls and hawks act the same way, but they perched on very different branches of the evolutionary tree.

Image result for images sea eagle diving for fish


“My, my”, said the teacher. “What to make of this?”

Mary Quinlan had been known to the staff of the Hillcrest School as a terror and one of the most impossible students they had ever matriculated; and now came Mrs. Roberts’ report that the girl was not only the worst student in the school, but perhaps the very best.

Everything that Mrs. Roberts suggested by way of intellectual stimulation was of course rejected out of hand by Mary.  “How stupid”, she would say. “How dumb”, and go off to study prime numbers, or the creatures in some evolutionary eddy.

“Just let her be”, said the principal to Mrs. Roberts and to all the other teachers up the line. “We will all be better off.”

The irony of it all was that Mary Quinlan turned out to be a beautiful girl as well as a smart one; but since she was pissy to everyone, only the most persistent boys hung around.  All the other girls in her class would have died to have the attention of the captains of the football and baseball teams, but not Mary. “They are too stupid”, she told her parents when they too wondered what was going on.

By Senior Year, however, Mary came into her own sexually. She knew that she was the one who could pick and choose and, as she had done all her life say “No”. She matured into a sexually active and demanding young woman – no surprises there – but soon realized that to keep the hounds baying at her door, she would have to throw them some meat occasionally. As much as it pained her to do so, she complimented Bobby Billings on his looks, Harvey Kidder on his build, and Blaine Whiter on his sophistication.  A good lesson learned early.  In fact the combination of an absolute, indomitable will; a canny understanding of male weakness and female jealousy; and a mind that could do just about anything was unbeatable.  Life would be a cinch.

Quite naturally she chose the most argumentative and contentious of all professions – The Law – and prospered.  She was in her element.  Her intelligence enabled her to devour, understand, and assimilate great volumes of legal text.  Her mental quickness and agility gave her the necessary insight into the weaknesses of opposing lawyers, judges, plaintiffs, and defendants; and her insuperable will made her unstoppable – a pure, implacable, and single-minded aggressor.

Image result for images courtroom


Her competitors carped and whinged about her character and personality; and called her everything from an Amazon bull dyke to a compassionless, arrogant, and self-centered bitch.  They, one understood, still had feelings and did not abandon their humanity in the courtroom.

“Which is why they lose”, Mary said to a colleague.

Mary’s story is unique because she was, thanks to an erratic combination of genes, parentage, and home environment was at the top of the social food chain from the very beginning.  She was alpha, dominant, and ideally suited and equipped for the high-pressure, high-stakes, brutally competitive world of the 21st Century.  God had made her without compassion, empathy, or outward-motivation.  He made her into the perfect human being for modern-day America.

Women or men like Mary Quinlan don’t come around very often. There are thousands of smart ones, plenty of canny ones, and plenty with strong wills; but rarely are all of these dominant traits found in one person.  Nietzsche would have been very happy to meet her.


Few people actually liked Mary Quinlan.  They were either in awe of her or afraid of her or both; but no one had any genuine affection for her.  Mary of course could care less. Companionship if and when it coincided with her interests was the most she ever desired. In her Biblical phase when she became as expert at exegesis as Tertullian or Augustine, she was happy to revive Harvard friendships with theological scholars.  In her Russian phase, she made frequent trips to Iowa State, of all places, where the foremost authority on Dostoevsky taught.  Other than that, she was self-contained.  She was never lonely, and certainly never simply ‘went out’.  All things had to have a purpose in Mary Quinlan’s world, and so be it.


The world needs more Mary Quinlans.  We have plenty of people concerned about the fate of the world, social justice, peace, and the environment; but we have very few social geniuses – those few, elite, and elect individuals who have known what’s what since the beginning; and who have acted according to the only validating principle of human life – the expression of individual will.

Why Mary is particularly suited to his era is because it is the most contentious, divided and divisive ever. Gone are the days of kings and emperors who reigned with authority and autocracy.  Palace coups, yes.  Fights with the French and the Spanish, yes. Internecine battles, yes; but the argumentative wheel-spinning of today? Never.

Mary Quinlan swept away both irrelevant people and arguments just like she did the clutter on Dr. Steinberg’s desk as a child. She dominated.  She ruled; and she prospered.

There will never be another Mary Quinlan in my lifetime; but then again, one is more than enough to handle.



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