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Joseph L. Kagle, Jr. Essays

Much Ado About The Air of Rotary

“The tendency towards slavish adherence to precedent only stands in the way…Needless and purposeless limitation is immoral. Will you not be the Moses to lead us out of this wilderness?”

Paul Harris, in a letter to Rotarian Will Moffat, April 1930

Air is the stuff of life. It is unseen but it sustains all existence. We breathe it in and regenerate our functioning parts. Without it, there is no life on earth or anywhere in the galaxy. Air is where we build, create, work, give service, meet others, work, love, touch, journey and live our lives. Paul Harris when he began Rotary in Chicago started with a few friends, some ideas, principles and ideals, a message that service was the purpose of living in a community, and his background in business (where the objects of commerce were merchandised) allowed him the vision that these things were not the “stuff” of life. What he began with was air. You can call his “air” by these words: images, ideas, actions in his community and conversations with friends (fellowship). What Harris found was also air: goodwill and peace being the rewards of sharing the air of meeting together. He allowed these “ideas” to journey to the space around each of us. Air has no borders. Air has no agenda except to help living things live better. But once you breathe in this air of ideas, ideals and ideates, you allow them to live within you, to help you function as a human being amongst other human beings living in a global village where the air is shared by all. All Rotarians have found this air to be useful in the most practical sense: it allows us to help others breathe better, live fuller lives and find an inner peace that creates more air to breathe.

Paul Harris started Rotary with imagination and he collected friends in a kind of Camelot circle who added their breath of imagination to the air that become Rotary International. In some Oriental cultures, that breath of air is called “ch’I yun”, or life, breath, motion. Buddhist monks in Tibet and other places breathe out “Om” and breathe in “ah”. It is nothing but air. It is the space between words and sounds in the poet’s and musician’s hands; it is the balanced contrast between the background and the figure in the painter’s portrait (like the Mona Lisa); it is the gap of insight between a glance from a husband to a wife after years of marriage and love; it is the sigh of a mother when she sees that her children are safe and well; it is ultimately, nothing but air which we spend “much ado” in exploring and filling with our presence, real and virtual. Air has no “slavish adherence to precedent.” It just is.

In science, it is Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainly. It is that space between the known and the unknown and the unknowable. It is history recorded and history rediscovered. It is the record of data from those who won the air to breathe in a war of some kind (actual or verbal) against the record of events seen from those who were defeated or unrecognized. It is assembling your own band of friends in a Camelot circle of service, a new Rotary Club, actual or virtual.

Finding the Uncertainty by Defining Paths

I start with a story:

One day in the studio, I was looking out the window at the landscape. I knew from my art history books that all the world could be defined for centuries as landscape, still-life and portrait, with historical, mythogical and everyday scenes thrown in. (Those crazy guys Picasso and Einstein threw in time as an element in my definition of “what is”.) On that day, I made an observation. There was dust in the air between what I saw and my eye, with the patterns constantly shifting. Also because of our Renaissance education in perspective, I was trained to see on a flat surface yet I knew that the back of my eyes were curved and the image that I saw was projected upside down and my mind turned it around the “right way”. Afterwards, I read all that I could about the Heisenberg Principle of Uncertainty (which states that one cannot measure values of certain “conjugate quantities” which are pairs of observables of a single elementary particle). Therefore on that day, I made up the patterns for the dust in the air as I saw fit, blending it with the observed scene. In science, that is called the Observer Effect which refers to several things in different situations, though they are similar. In physics, it is that one cannot see the size and speed of an electron because the tools that you are using to observe it changes the size and speed of the element that you are trying to observe. In Information Technology, that has the same potential impact of observing a process output while the process is running. It is trying to see life while you are still living maybe. In Social Science, it is changing human behavior while you are observing human behavior because you are observing human behavior.

The question is: Is it possible to see anything, define anything, know anything because of the tools that we are using for observation: our senses, our education, our culture, our human condition, our religions, etc? How can we define a term when the observer changes the circumstances of the observation in the act of defining the term? In the song How Can We Keep The Music Playing, there is the line: “And since we are always changing, how can it be the same?” (which refers to love, of course). I am sure that song writer didn’t even study the Heisenberg Principle of Uncertainty.

This does not bother me at all (I sing the song anyway) since I figured out long ago that I am a reasoned observer who is a romantic also. The one colors the other and sometimes leads me into weird places. Naming the unknown has always been fun. Rainy, misty days are my time and place. The fog in the early morning is my friend. Therefore, just for fun and the romance of thought, I propose a conference of human beings, similar to the one just held in Prague for the astronomers. It would be called the International Homo Erectus Convention and would attempt to define certain words: God, Truth, Culture, Love, Friendship, Fellowship, Goodwill, Peace, Time, Space, Death, Life and a list of others that will come with the participants. We would have referees who would make sure that our context for definition was always appropriate (whatever that might mean since we will have to define the rules too.) It will be held in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia because it is a safe place to discuss heady things, or the Marshall Islands, or certain shrines, temples, churches and forums around the world. I know nothing would come of it but it would be “much ado“ and “a joy to behold”.

I can’t resist one last question: “How many legs does a horse have?” Answer as of May 3, 2007, 6:50 am, Central Standard time, “It depends on the shutter speed.”

Do we shape the air around us by our act of breathing so that we cannot see air in its pure form? Can we see air at all? Is our logical mind shaped by our actions and upbringing in the air that was created by those who went before us? Can we know our own minds as they are fueled by the air of others as well as ourselves? If “self” is sacrificed to “service”, how can we know ourselves in the service? Or alternately, if we know our “self” before we give the “service”, are we truly giving “service above self”? Maybe, we make up systems to order that uncertain air. Paul Harris creates Rotary because order is needed, even the illusion of order, when we act in service for others “above self” and “without borders”; and we, the Rotarians of the present, keep our egos in the wings when “others” are served. We put on the “airs” of our true self when we serve.

How can this idea about the air of creativity and insight be “nothing” until we breathe it in and make it our own? Was this whole adventure of thought started on the night with Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing or was it started with the first breathe of the air of the world?

What Harris did was fulfill a dream that Shakespeare started long ago: “For here’s a paper written in his hand; A halting sonnet of his own pure brain….”

Much Ado About Nothing

Anne and I took an enlightened adventure last Wednesday night at the Alley Theater in Houston, seeing Much Ado About Nothing. It is all about selling air. It began with a little boy and a red balloon, which he let go and it floated out the top of the stage. He left and all the actors started wandering in. All at once, balloons began to appear in the background (in various colors and patterns). The sky was filled with people riding on the air of balloons. The actors talked more, asking where Don Petro was, and all at once a hot air balloon inflated itself on the stage (a really large one). One elderly actor went over and unzipped the balloon and three warriors got out, dressed in outfits that were a cross between motorcycle racers and astronauts (one had a beard like a Rotary eClub fellow and Don Petro had one like mine). It took off from there. It was nothing, air and imagination and wonder and magic. It was the best imaginative production of Shakespeare that I have ever seen (and that includes Broadway, Stratford and London). Oh, I have seen great period productions (and know the play very well, seeing it maybe 50 times during the years) but never an Alice-In-Wonderland production that was a collage of anything that was filled with the air of the spirit of joy. I lost myself in that air for three hours in pure enjoyment. In the last scene, the last image, when love wins and the warriors put up their weapons (even the verbal ones), the actors are dancing, then suddenly stop and point to lead our eyes upward, the red balloon descends from the clouds above, the little boy as the only moving actor runs on stage, takes the string of the balloon in his hand again and all the lights go out. It was great. It was about space and air and light and imagination and spirit. This morning I thought that we sell air all the time: it is called architecture, the space that people inhabit. Paul Harris sold the air of Rotary to us all. Much Ado About Nothing was about play and creativity and love and deception and fellowship and goodwill and love and love. Some would say that three hours of empty space, just air, is nothing but I would really disagree. I will pay anything for that kind of air. Say, I wonder if, when we fill it up, our eClub and Rotary Global History will be like Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing where each of us is filled with the air of a new adventure in service?

I have not met anyone in Rotary eClub of the Southwest, USA or Rotary Global History physically face-to-face but in the air of the internet we have shared dreams, visions, plans for service, talents, expertise, years of knowledge, and our personal “self”, filling the virtual air. We make, at times, much ado about the nothing space between us which disappears as we share ourselves. We breathe the air of fellowship and sometimes find the air of peace in that communication of different “selfs” across borders. We find out about time in this actual world and we plan our airing of ideas when the sun is up, the body and mind sharp (a compromise of different times, different spaces and different air). .

The air between Rotarians is many times “much ado about nothing” for anyone on the outside of the relationship looking in but it is more than just “empty” air. It is the essence of life that we breathe together. It is the air filled with all those who have been leaders of Rotary and all the other fellowships that grace this globe. The air is filled with knowledge, energy and life. It is more than “nothing” but it is that too, a virtual universe that is oh too real, and I make “much ado” about it whenever I can.

RGHF Historian Joseph L. Kagle, Jr., 7 May 2007