ABILITY MagazineABILITY JobsABILITY StoreABILITY Awareness

MAX GAIL: RUNNING LAPS

So there I was at a stoplight, pencil in hand and a pad of paper on the seat, clustering the key words in search of the name for this Great Idea that had, over time, coalesced out of the many experiences and lessons, the needs and aspirations of my life. The idea was a way that I might be creatively fulfilled and useful in the same effort. Something that could feed my family and feed my spirit. A path, a purpose, program, a process, a possibility that was pragmatic and principled and full of promise.

One source of inspiration for this vision came from my time with Native Americans, and in particular from the Intertribal Friendship Houses I visited in the seventies in various cities, such as Denver, Chicago, Los Angeles, that had large Native American populations from numerous nations. Usually functioning on garage sale resources they always seemed to have a rich intercultural and intergenerational life. I believe this had to do with regard for future generations, the respect for different ways, the connection to place, and the recognition of the relationship of all life that "in-forms" Native American cultures as immensely varied as they are otherwise.

Another inspiration came from working with Free Arts for Abused Children, a Los Angeles based non-profit founded by actress Carolyn Sargent who transcended painful childhood experiences with deafness through the arts. Free Arts organizes volunteers under professional guidance, both therapeutic and artistic, to provide creative experiences for children caught up in the system. Their motto is, "Art heals." From toddlers to teenagers, across the whole range of disturbance to a healthy life, the value of an opportunity for creative expression and exploration is unmistakable. It raises the nagging question, "What happens for these kids when they are out of the system and back in the situation that got them in trouble to begin with."

It has been proven through many and varied evaluation methods that visual and performing arts improve performance across the whole spectrum of curriculum in addition to the richness they add to personal and community life. Yet we have diminished or dispensed with most creative programs in our schools nationwide as if they are frivolous and indulgent pastimes. Fact is there are many programs in existence, created by artists and others embodying the whole range of human giftedness, to meet this need. They struggle to find the resources so they can effectively share their gifts and talents. Mentoring is a two way need that is a part of human evolution and survival. It seems we frustrate this natural phenomenon rather that nurture it.

Still another inspiration for LAPs grew out of my experience with diversity, or "valuing differences," workshops. One day in the late eighties a large friendly man showed up at my home sent over by Elda Unger, the guiding force of Free Arts, when she learned that Jim sometimes brought executives on a cattle drive ďretreatĒ on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. This turned out to be only one of the ways Jim Lew brought people of different backgrounds together for mutually beneficial relationship. He has worked in community policing on both the community and police "sides," with prison populations and with corporate and civic organizations large and small. Three days later I was sitting with Andrew Young and twenty some other people from just as many backgrounds at the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia. The purpose was to explore ways to get people looking to the year 2000, with its promises and problems, which at the time seemed a long way off to many.

Jim and I became good friends, and, when I told him one day that his work sounded more interesting than any script I had seen for some time, he offered me the opportunity to join him as a facilitator in training. "We need more diversity among the diversity trainers," was the way he put it. I participated with Jim and some of his wonderful associates in workshops with Polaroid, Northwest Airlines, the City of Ventura, the Tennessee Valley Authority and others. They used an array of exercises, videos and other processes to reveal the tendency in every one to prejudge others, and they nurtured the trust and humor necessary for good dialogue. Then they guided that dialogue beyond the race and gender issues to which notions of diversity are often limited, to the vast spectrum of visible and invisible human differences. They had exercises to demonstrate the many ways any group of people can be divided and others to coax out the pain and poetry in everyone's story that was otherwise unexpressed, undetected and unacknowledged.

That this was going on anywhere in the corporate world was, for me, a revelation. That there was a need for such processes in our schools and communities was as undeniable as was the value of the workshops to the participants. Like the Free Arts experience, when the masks come off and the guards come down, when the hearts and minds are opened there is an unmistakable unleashing of human creativity and possibility that does not appear in the adversarial context that dominates so much of life. But also like Free Arts workshops, there is the question of continuity. How could we make these good things, of which there are many examples, available and ongoing throughout our society?

This is not to suggest that the challenges of human relationships would disappear. As Peter Drucker points out in The New Realities, we have become a world of purpose and cause related pluralities. As citizens and consumers, as participants and providers we have sliced and diced ourselves into categories of race and religion, age and gender, politics and professions, abilities and affinities, each defining its boundaries and defending its positions. It seemed that many people were tired of this alienation and lack of connectedness, the polarization of every issue in the media and the fragmentation of community into market segments. Every time I saw an empty store in a mall or strip mall, or on the main street of some small town, I would envision one of these places: part Intertribal Friendship House, part Free Arts, part ongoing diversity program. A place where people could connect to the way in which their lives and interests overlapped.

I had another agenda in my Great Idea. For five years I had been relatively inactive as an actor due largely to my wife's struggle with cancer and the challenge/blessing of raising our young daughter after her mother died. During this time the landscape of television changed quite a bit. In particular most half hour comedies had become about young, single, white characters. There were a few all black shows produced primarily by the new networks. But none of the diversity of the seventies shows. By 1990 I had been blessed to be married and a father again. Nan is African American, as was my first wife, and our children are "mixed." Actually, most people are if you stop to think about it. Our circle of friends and relations is a diverse one, as is American society and the workplace more and more, and yet our national view of ourselves on television was becoming less and less so, largely because of market forces and business strategies.

I did a show staring Frank Zappa's two oldest kids, Moon and Dweezil, and inspired by the Zappa family. It was a great idea and the Zappas are great, but there was no writer with a vision like Danny Arnold who had created Barney Miller. Instead there was a network committee, which did not yield a good result. That left me pondering what I would like to do if I created a show. And the answer was a show in one of these places that existed in my mind's eye. Of course, they didnít exist yet in the real world like a school or a bar or a police or radio station. Perhaps the show could model the concept. But how could it all work? How could all the stakeholders in a community become participants in a mutually beneficial enterprise? It seemed that there were two ends of an arch reaching toward each other and I was looking for that keystone that would provide the structural bridge between the on air reach of a broadcast program and the on land reach of grass roots community programs.

About that time I got a call from some documentary film makers who were familiar with the three hundred hours of video tape I had that was shot throughout 1980 for the "documusical" project I had been unable to get on the air.

By 1980 video cameras, once huge and expensive, had become small and portable and were beginning to be available not only to media companies but to individuals. Cable was making it's way into almost all communities, and the growing number of subscribers represented a growing audience for non broadcast programming such as HBO. This in turn led to more subscribers. Because cable required a big infrastructure investment from the local operators there was room for only one company in any given area. A whole new set of relationships evolved to deal with these new necessary monopolies. Policies were developed on all levels. Community activists pushed for PEG (public, education, and government) access and there was a great deal of hope expressed about the democratizing of media.

I saw a way to tell a different kind of story, or tell a story in a different way. I called it a "documusical" and titled it For All My Relations. That is the usual translation for the Lakota spiritual expression "Mitakuye Oyasin," but "we are all related" would be just as appropriate. It is an expression that extends beyond family and human relationships to those with all of life and all of the living universe. The idea was to cover all the travels and events that came up throughout the year using the whole spectrum of video storytellers and making them part of the story. Music was at the core rather than in the background.

I will return to this adventure in the second part of this story, but here are some highlights. We were on the Mohawk reservation at a time when conflict between traditional and progressive community members had come to a boiling point. We were in the Black Hills where Native Americans and ranchers, historically at odds, had partnered to deal with the issues of uranium mining and nuclear power.

Great people participated, Indian and not Indian, famous and not famous, activist and not activist. It was a learning experience every step of the way, but the country was moving politically to the right. Ronald Reagan was giving campaign speeches about "our ancestors coming from Europe to this vast unpopulated land" and no one in the media seemed to notice.

I developed relationships with documentary filmmakers and helped produce films on Agent Orange, nuclear power, and other issues. I learned that sometimes the process of gathering a story can have a more meaningful effect on a community than showing it later.

Now these film makers wanted me to meet someone who was developing CD ROM titles and was looking for something with "social content." He had been a film student at Kent State during the tragedy there. He and his classmates had shot whatever film existed of the tragic incident. He was not intimidated by the seemingly radical nature of the material. We needed to digitize the key interviews in the tapes, and I had to get with it in terms of information technology. This led our family finally over the barriers of inexperience that had kept us from buying our first computer. We bought a PC and signed up to AOL.

A few days later I saw the neighborhood kids and mine chatting on AOL and I had an epiphany. I went to a Women In Film technology conference and the National Publishers convention. It didn't take long to learn that the CD ROM was not going to remain a lasting platform and that publishers weren't going to see Native American issues as a big market. Not long after someone showed me Mosaic, the precursor of the Netscape browser. Something entirely new was emerging. In the Barney Miller days we could do an episode about a social or environmental issue exploring the humor to get at the truth. I could make documentaries and help organize events, as I had done, around the same issues. But these efforts were on disconnected platforms. Now the platforms were converging around a new one-the Internet. On air, on line, and on the ground programs could be tied together in a self creating loop. I saw the possibility of something new "emerging." This was something I wanted to be a part of. But this would only be meaningful if everyone had access to the technology, meaning they would have access to share their own visions as well as those of others. Providing that access could be of value to everyone concerned, but it needed a new way of thinking about the relationships of all involved.

I started having meetings with friends around our round dining room table. One of them, who had been instrumental in the design of Brand Central concept for Sears, helped me see that the challenge involved thinking about all the ramifications of the Great Idea and then bringing it back to one simple name that enfolded them all. And that is what led me to that moment at the stop light doing a right brained writing exercise to find a name for the Great Idea. I had been through "Cyber Space Station" and "Diversity University" and "Creative Cafe." I had played with acronyms: the "GLOBE" (General Learning, Organizing and Balancing Environment), the "LINK" (Local Interactive Networking Kiosk) and the "PIER" (Personal Investigation and Exploration Resource). All expressed parts but not the whole.

On my pad I had written down "local" and drawn an oval, a bubble, around it. It was important that these places be available in any and every community. I had written down "access" because it was all about access to all things in all directions. And I had written down "place" because this Great Idea was about real place, the unique sacredness of each place that enfolds the lives that are lived there. I was concerned about the notion of Cyberspace as some sort of new frontier. First of all, if you spend much time with Native Americans you never hear that word "frontier" the same way again. Just as important, anyone "in cyberspace" is actually somewhere in real space, is actually some place.

I looked at my notes. Local Access Place. LAP. Well, yes! A lap is a story telling teaching learning place. A safe place of nurture. The word "lap" is a verb and a noun in a number of ways so it has a sort of particle/wave nature like the quantum realm of physical reality which is as much about relationships as things. Perfect! And then a horn honked. The light was green. I looked up and across the street was the GAP. A sign?

A week later I was reading Kevin Kellyís book Out of Control-the New Biology of Economics, Machines and Social Systems. Kevin is a biologist by education who had been with the Whole Earth Catalogue and the Whole Earth Lectronic Link, aka the Well, perhaps the first and most influential of online communities. Itís a brilliant book that makes the case that life is enfolding technology, as it did the rocks and oceans, not the other way around. In a chapter about computer "experiments" seeking to demonstrate that life is an emergent property of the universe rather than a random accident he used a metaphor of a lap circle to describe how living molecules could form "all at once" under certain conditions. The lap circle is considered a "trust exercise." People form a circle, coming together shoulder to shoulder, then each turns so that they are watching the back of the one in front of them. If they have enough trust to sit together each will form a lap for the one in front and sit on the lap behind them and the circle will self-support.

Trust is the currency of social capital, the part of human capital that resides in the relationships. Itís the synergy involved when the whole is more than the sum of the parts. So the lap circle has become the LAP OM (Organizing Metaphor) or MO (Modus Operandi) if you prefer. Since that time I have been running laps on the learning curve. Now what does that mean?

A Big Little Word

Lap is one of those words in the dictionary with a lot of meanings, some of them overlapping. Forgive me. It's going to be like that for a while. One of those meanings has to do with completing some circuit or cycle in time or space. The "learning curve" is usually thought of as a graphic representation of the progress in learning measured against the time required to achieve mastery. The idea is that we learn slowly at first, in any subject, but over time we learn faster. Thus, the line (that is the graphic representation of our learning) curves upward.

This is OK as far as it goes, but is based a notion of learning (and teaching) that you can think of as filling an empty glass, the learner, from a pitcher, the teacher. Even this metaphor has problems and opens the discussion on the mystery of teaching and learning. Do we construct our own knowledge from within? Or does the teacher put it in there? Well, both. And any good teacher is always learning. This is all part of a rich dialogue of discovery about which we are all on the learning curve. We are all part of a vast ecosystem of learning/teaching for which we have no word.

Sometimes, perhaps always, learning something new involves unlearning something old. At some point, as the learning curve curves up, it presumably may become vertical. Would this mean that, at that moment, time has stopped or we have learned it all? Sounds like a moment for reexamination, or a new paradigm.

The process of evolution, in the matter to life to mind to spirit sense, involves continual transcendence and enfolding of that which is past. So I propose here that we think of the LAP learning curve as a circle around the common good, and that running laps is something we do individually and collectively when ever we create that circle of teaching/learning.

"Learning is always a creative act. We are continuously engaged in the art of making meaning and creating our world through the unique processes of human learning. Learning for humans is instinctual, continuous, and the most complex of our natural traits. Learning is also a key to our ability to survive in the environments that we create and that create us." Gregory Cajete, Ph.D. Look To The Mountain-an Ecology of Indigenous Education.

That circle encompasses all the circles we can bring to it. It can include the circles of races and religions, of temperaments and personalities, of domains (business, government, education, community) and disciplines (physics, biology, psychology, theology, mysticism). In his book Principle Centered Leadership, Steven Covey talks about our individual circles of control and concern. One of the meanings of lap is a "metaphorical domain of care, charge, control and responsibility." So we bring our own laps to the learning curve. If we can find the way they lap (overlap in the engineering sense) we can create that metaphorical lap circle.

Metaphors, particularly new ones, get a bad rap in the land of linear thinking. Actually they are very significant, essential to the process of understanding and transferring thought from one realm to another. The metaphor of a hypothetical fluid was instrumental to understanding electricity. Thomas Jefferson once wrote, "New circumstances call for new words, new phrases, and the transfer of old words to new objects." Marvin Minski, co founder of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT says in The Society of Mind that, "Every thought is to some degree a metaphor."

Essential to classical capitalist understanding of economics is the "invisible hand of the marketplace." It's a metaphor, of course, based on understandings about the behavior of mankind as an economic being, a functional part of a machine like universe. It was new thinking that emerged out of the changes we came to call the industrial age. While sometimes that is claimed as a European accomplishment, or crime, it really grew out of the merge of things and thoughts from many different realms of our one earth bringing about change for everyone-transformation. These days some people have an almost religious faith in the marketplace, and there are those who oppose them just as religiously. I am proposing a new metaphor, "the visible lap of the community," which is based on understandings of mankind as a living being, part of living universe.

In his wonderful, accessible book, The Web of Life, Fritjov Capra writes about "...a new scientific understanding of life at all levels of living systems-organisms, social systems, and ecosystems...based on a new perception of reality that has profound implications not only for science and philosophy, but also for business, politics, health care, education, and everyday life."

In his equally wonderful book A Brief History of Everything, Ken Wilbur says, "So we can summarize all this very simply: because evolution goes beyond what went before, but because it must embrace what went before, then its very nature is to transcend and include, and thus it has an inherent directionality, a secret impulse, toward increasing depth, increasing intrinsic value, increasing consciousness. In order for evolution to move at all it must move in those directions-there's no place else for it to go!...because the universe has direction, we ourselves have direction. There is meaning in every movement, intrinsic value in the embrace. As Emerson put it, we lie in the lap of immense intelligence which, by any other name, is Spirit."

Well, there's that word "lap" again. See, we use it all kinds of ways and they all apply metaphorically to LAP. I am a songwriter as much as anything else, but that way of saying it, "song writer," misses something about songs that is included in the understanding that songs are also given to us to care take. I feel that way with LAP.

I want to go back to my story, running laps on the learning curve, where I discover that there are many interrelated aspects to local access places: people, programs, platforms, principles...lots of "P" words. The "places" it turned out were one component of a larger something made up of all these interrelated components. All were producing and transforming the others. Thatís what they call auto poesis, self making, the pattern common to all living systems. I decided to give "P's" a chance. To create one acronym for all the components of LAP. I call it a "macronym."

One of the first calls I made was to Chet Cooper, publisher of ABILITY Magazine. We had met at a fund-raiser at the Comedy Store involving comics with disabilities and put on by my friend Art Metrano. Art is a talented character actor who slipped off a ladder one day and began to learn the hard way about spinal cord injuries. He had asked me to open the event with one of my poems. I met Chet again at a wheelchair basketball game. Of course, inclusivity meant including people with disabilities, but I had other motives as well.

For one, it was clear to me that all enabling technologies, from curb cuts to voice recognition software, had value to others who were not at the moment "disabled." What about a kid who can get sixth grade science but can't read at a sixth grade level. The right technology can help him in both areas.

My favorite example is the large stalls in public restrooms. Any parent who has ever been shopping with toddlers knows this is a family stall. It can help avoid having one kid head out into the mall jungle while you are wiping another. And don't skateboarders and others love those curb cuts!

Just as important, the disability community is a wisdom pool for changing public and personal paradigms around access issues. I know that that involves many battle scars, and that the struggle continues. Nonetheless, we have incorporated some fundamental changes in our built environment that have opened minds as well as doors.

I have since learned that people in the disability community fan out into every nook and cranny of society, and, even amongst themselves, deal with all the other diversity issues everyone else does...plus a few. I spent some time with a great couple in Salt Lake City while shooting a TV movie. Both little people of different types. Honestly, I forget the details, but I remember learning that there was quite an involved hierarchy of challenges and status just in that one area. It's the way we are.

As I got to know Chet I found he was very familiar with the various tools and techniques I had encountered in my diversity training experiences. He had also been involved with introducing these processes to young people in schools through theater programs. We had long talks about the core philosophy of the magazine, which is attitudinal change. Chet, I found, had a unique sense of humor (I used to tell him it was his biggest disability), and a strong sense of the profound value of humor in all aspects of life. As my friend Wavy Gravy says, "When you lose your sense of humor it's just not funny anymore."

Chet has been a consistent co-caretaker of LAP ever since. We have attended many conferences together, sometimes directly related to disabilities and just as often bringing that representation to another forum. I know there are other publications, many of them serving an important need admirably and a couple just trying to tap a market. But I have seen the commitment that he and the rest of the staff have maintained to create not only a good magazine, but, through the ABILITY Awareness Foundation, to develop innovative programs like JobAccess and the ABILITY House program with Habitat for Humanity. I am honored to have this opportunity. Heíll try to get me to take this out I am sure, but I won't.

Six years plus now on that learning curve meeting many kindred spirits like Chet and the ABILITY folk. Building my knowledge base, and more important, relationships. It's those six years I will be covering in greater depth in the second half of this series. Winston Churchill once defined success as surviving failure after failure after failure without losing one's optimism. In that sense I have been successful. I've had a lot to learn. Along the way I have connected with many co-collaborators, from the reservation to the Capitol, from the inner city to the corporate office. Business, Government, Education, Foundations and not for profit enterprises, community policing, community development, distance learning, restorative justice, Smart Communities, Community Technology Center Network, Alliance for Community Networking, Global School House, ThinkQuest, Colors United, LINCT-a vast ecosystem of local, regional and national programs and enterprises is emerging. AT&T now owns the biggest cable company and AOL owns Time Warner. Amazon and E-Bay and Cisco and others are transforming the way we share information and ideas. Under the catch phrase Digital Divide, politicizing though it may be, business and government are mobilizing to extend access to everyone. Thought leaders, like Dee Hock, the founder of VISA International and author of The Birth of the Chaordic Age, are creating the maps for the organizational paradigms of a new age. Some argue that it's government's job and others argue for the market place, but we all know it's a responsibility that lies in all of our laps. And we know that the technology itself will not provide the global consciousness we need. As Ken Wilbur puts it, we have to include the "I" and the "we" with the "it." We are all part of a great circle, and the center of that circle, the common good, is distributed around the periphery. It's in each of us. My hope is that, however imperfectly I have embraced this opportunity to share with you, that you will share back. That we can run laps together. I hope you will feed back to me your questions and comments so that I can respond in the next turn. What is going on, or not, in your community?

Finally, here's a last rhyme, a verse from a song I wrote to help rise above the negativity in my own head and the world around me.

You can tell me of integrity as if you've seen the last.

You can tell me of perfection as if the moment past.

You can tell me of the wicked world as if the die is cast,

But we can change things for the good, and things are changing fast.  

Click here to read Max Gail's Laps II

CONTINUED IN ABILITY MAGAZINE...... subscribe

More stories from Dana Reeve issue: 1998

Q & A: Fibromyalgia

Interview with Dana Reeve

Buy It Now2 Free Shipping
HOME | PAST ISSUES | SUBSCRIPTIONS | LINKS | ADA INFO | CONTACT US | SEARCH