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The Transitive Property of Relationships
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When the subject of math comes up, I tend to break out in an algebraic kind of rash. And I’m afraid those hives manage to spread exponentially when my daughters ask for help with word problems. Yet for a borderline mathphobe, I am strangely fascinated by the transitive property.

For those of you who feel my itch enough to need a reminder, this is the property that states that if a=b and b=c, then a=c. Since I can’t really explain my interest in this concept, I can only assume that it stuck because it was the very last math principle I learned. After all, the math train left my station back in 1985 and hasn’t been traveling fast enough to warrant the creation of a word problem since.

The intriguing thing to me is that I just realized that I apply the transitive property all the time in my day-to-day living—I just don’t use it with numbers. Instead, I employ it to gather information about people and programs I might be interested in spending my time with.

The way I see it, if someone I truly enjoy and respect is a passionate endorser of some other person or thing, I trust that I will feel the same. The transitive property allows me to jump into a new relationship with the expectation of success. I can’t help but think that this presumption makes me ten times more likely to actually have the positive experience I’m looking for. The mind is indeed a powerful thing, even if it sputters at math.

Take, for example, my recent experience with the author Kelly Corrigan. She wrote a best-selling memoir titled The Middle Place in which she described poignantly, if not poetically, the period of life where you find yourself as both a mother and a daughter at the same time. I fell in love with her writer’s voice and sought out more of her work. This led me to discover an essay she wrote about friendship titled “Transcending,” which you simply must search for on YouTube. In the video reading of her essay, Corrigan describes her mother’s circle of friends, who call themselves “the pigeons” as a self-effacing twist on hens. She goes on to describe the grief the pigeons experienced recently when two of their own passed away. Corrigan summed it up with: “On the pigeons go, though, like women do, limping one minute and carrying someone the next.”

Analogies like this one make me a passionate fan of her writing—so much so that Corrigan recently inspired a delightful “transitive” moment for me. I attended an event for Community Leadership San Jose in which a classmate I like, but don’t know really well, was handing out fliers to promote a Kelly Corrigan reading. Just knowing that she liked Corrigan enough to promote her event solidified in my mind that Debbie is my kind of gal. After all, if Debbie loves Kelly and Shana loves Kelly, then Shana surely loves Debbie.


I suppose the transitive property is also a practical way of stating one of my favorite Spanish idioms, which translates to: “He who sleeps with dogs wakes up with fleas.” And I certainly know this to be true, as well, when it applies to associating with people or causes that are tainted by bad intentions. I recently experienced this side of the equation when someone asked me if a particular woman was my friend. As I sat there trying to formulate an answer more complicated than calculus, I realized I was ashamed to claim her because of the way she treated people. It was right then that I knew that by transitive property my affiliation with her meant that I should be ordering my flea collars in bulk.

This way of thinking would have infuriated my younger self, who believed whole heartedly that a person should be judged solely by her own words and actions. But I now accept that the company we keep and the events that consume our time say a lot about what we value. As I get older and, dare I say, wiser, I find that my time is as precious to me as my reputation. And as I strive to do good things and be a good person, I find it much easier to do this when I surround myself with people and events that I’m proud to endorse. This doesn’t mean that any of these people or groups is expected to be perfect, of course. But I think we all need to make sure that our associations equate to more transitive declarations of love, and fewer flea bites to the butt.


Note: If you would like to experience a positive corollary to that Spanish idiom: “She who reads Kelly Corrigan wakes up feeling grateful and understood,” please join Shana in attending the “Celebrate More Birthdays” event with a reading by Kelly Corrigan on May 13th at the Campbell Heritage Theater. You will walk away feeling truly uplifted, while simultaneously supporting the fight against cancer. http://www.ochfoundation.org/news/events/Pages/CelebrateMoreBirthdays.aspx


2 Comment count
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You are one gifted writer!

Dear Shana,

I just had to comment on the valuable and creative content of this blog. You are sooooo right about guarding our time as well as our reputations. No matter our ethical affliations we sometimes get caught up in a "karma" principle of thinking that it is necessary to befriend and be nice at all times. I, too, have come to the realization that it is energy efficient to distance myself from those who don't understand the transitive property concept in relationships.Good intentioned people = positive realtionships. Positive relationships = not perfect but happy people. Good intentioned people = imperfect, happy and fulfilled living people.

I always enjoy and learn from your blogs.There is so much more I would like to comment about your wise and creative writing but my Swifter is calling. Being that it is Mothers' Day tomorrow when my Children and Grandchildren arrive, I have to make a good impression.

Celebrate Mothers' Day knowing that your children are lucky to have such a creative, talented, kind, and good humored Mother!

Mary Walsh

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Oh, Mary!

All I can say is that my family will be hard pressed to top your gift to me this Mother's Day. Thank you so very much for the tears of joy, pride and validation your brought to me.

Happy Mother's Day!


Shana McLean Moore