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OFF THE SCENE: From Moscow with Naj

November 15, 2011
Sometimes I think I live in a Fellini movie of my own making. Or maybe one created by Rube Goldberg. In a word,


A week from today I will be on a flight to Moscow, that is if my visa comes through. That’s a big if. I don’t know why, but working in and with Russia can put your heart in your throat. Generally they come through, but not with out a lot of drama that gets you right up to the cliff edge first.

I am reminded of back in 1989 when I was loaned to the Soviet Academy of Science by the Cathedral St John the Divine to help them organize an international conference on global issues facing the survival of humanity. The Academy, the Supreme Soviet and the Russian Orthodox Church had agreed to jointly host the conference – working together a first for the three of them. My boss, The Reverend James Parks Morton, was the religious co-chair and my Soviet boss, Evgeny Velikov, vice-president of the Academy, the co-chair for the science program. My job was to help showcase the cultural diversity of the Soviet Union to he 1,100 visiting dignitaries as well as to the newly elected members of the Supreme Soviet.

I had been commuting back and forth between New York and Moscow. The major events were taking place in the Kremlin and in the Sovin Center, a huge conference center gifted to the Soviet by Armand Hammer. When I left two weeks before, the Center was looking good (all the chairs, tables and lighting in place) and thus I had scheduled the Union of Artists to meet me upon my return to install all manner of artworks to decorate the breakout rooms, hallways and central forum where the plenary sessions were to take place. I arrived back with a several vans, cars and borrowed city buses filled with works of art before the conference was to open to find bedlam. The Soviets had decided to repaint the walls and re-carpet the floors. The whole place was torn apart, all this just three days before the conference was to open.

People painting walls, tearing up and hauling out the old carpets and laying down new ones while others were moving furniture this way and that, all fueled with vodka. We had no choice but dive in grab rollers and help paint the walls while others hung artwork on the still wet surfaces. The sculptors used rolls upon rolls of duck tape to create imaginative birds and other animals out of the left over packing materials, which they hung from the ceiling.

The Sovin Center was a large facility. To get a sense of the scale of the chaos imagine what would happen if Ted told the staff to re-carpet and repaint the new Lake Placid Conference Center 3 days before the leaders of the International Olympic Committee, the NFL, the world leagues of soccer, badminton, rugby, cricket, baseball, basketball, lacrosse, Aussie Rules, polo, dog sledding, surfing and the X Games came together to address corruption in sports. Think of what the food staff thought of the idea, or the translators who had to set up their booths and equipment so everything could be simultaneously translated into at least a dozen languages, or the people coming in to organize registration say nothing of those who had to paint the walls.

It might cause you to reach for a bottle of Stoli. It was like, wow.

Last week I was in Washington, DC to attend and help facilitate the first conference on the use of the arts in health to support the healing of servicemen and women, their families and caregivers, which was hosted by the new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC) that had just opened a few weeks before. Heretofore the Navy (which includes the Marines) and the Army had their own national military medical centers but, as a result of a dictate from Congress, they were required to create a single medical center under a single command.

As nurse Kathy Bixby said, to illustrate the differences in the military cultures that had to find a way of working together; if one were to ask the Navy to secure a building, they send a command that everyone go to their offices or stations, lock all the doors, and check the radar to determine if any hostile force was coming from any direction; the Army would set up a defence around the building complete with barricades, check points, antiaircraft guns and other equipment needed to repel an invasion; and the Marines would assault the building coming at it from all directions at once including landing helicopters on the roof. The Air Force on the other hand would try to get a three-year lease on the building with an option to buy.

We in the arts thought, this back a year ago, what a perfect time to organize a conference on the arts right when three of these different cultures would be very distracted by the marrying of their medical centers. That turned out to be correct, but then there was the added challenge of learning to speak military, figure out ranks, and learn their protocols. That too was a wow say nothing of being the point person for all the panellists.

In the meantime I am working with the State Department to figure out the cheapest way to fly to Ulan UDE via DME airport in Moscow using only American carriers to Moscow and timing it so I do not have to spend a night (extra $350) in Moscow or 13 hours at the airport. That took six weeks, which left 3 to get a visa, my business application was rejected because the flights arranged left 6 hours too late so now my fate and wallet depends on securing a tourist visa as amending my invitation would require at least a month that I do not have. Added to that I have been re-roofing a friend’s house and working with representatives of Adk Wild, Adk Council, Ausable River Assoc and the supervisors of Keene and Jay to plan a community meeting that will review the impact of Irene and establish an Au Sable River planning group to address challenges of restoring the river, housing and the economy.

And then my yard needs raking and gutters cleaning, I have firewood to split, and a map and a wall of fish to paint for a client. Fortunately I was raised in a cultuaqre where doing a variety of things at once is the norm and a grandmother who taught me that panic didn’t install confidence in the customers.



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