Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Race Within: Things cut from the book #2, a man named moses

The legend of Coconut Man didn't stop at Coconut Man. Thanks to a case of mistaken identity, my insatiable curiosity and my penchant for sacrificing entire nights of sleep to satisfy it, I stumbled onto the life of an extraordinary-- and extraordinarily peculiar-- man. The tale of Coconut/Paper Bag hat man felt like an extremely appropriate allegory to me, especially after what happened to Cory Foulk. I think that Ultraman athletes all pursue an extraordinary goal, but that pursuit carries significant risk. When you go to your outermost limits, you have to chart your course carefully. People who lose themselves have a difficult time making their way back. moses demonstrated that very well. You can decide for yourself whether it was worth it or not. His daughter Kira has made a website displaying his hats here. This excerpt cut from the book picks up where the first post left off. 

Whatever the fate of Burling, the legend of Coconut Man persisted, often with such evidence that it defied reason. If not Burling, then who was gathering the bags? They didn't disappear on their own, and the man who took them certainly matched the description given by the seekers: long beard, odd mannerisms, outlandish fashion. It seemed almost as if there were two eccentric castaways roaming the western shores of Hawai'i. That was exactly the case.
As it turned out, Burling's appearance and mannerisms were enough to get him confused with the second man at first glance, though the two were quite distinct. Shocked by their abnormalities, people focused on their most striking features and failed to see the nuances. Just as experimental jets become UFOs and bears turn into Bigfoot, Coconut Man was mistaken for Paper Bag Hat Man. His real name is moses-- deliberately spelled with a lower-case "m." Though shorter and not nearly as thin as Coconut Man, moses' beard and unconventional haberdashery made for easy confusion from a distance or verbal description. This is what led to the mixing of their separate stories into the legend. moses indeed lived in a white van near one of the coastal state parks. Within its artistically tiled and fastidiously kept interior he applied himself fervently to perfecting the art of making the paper bag hats for which he gained his local renown. While he also eschewed elements of modern technology and lived alone, moses was quite sociable and had no issues wearing typical clothes and footwear. As for the Fifth Avenue meltdown origin story, time, gossip and obscurity distorted a few details.

Born Murray Robert Odessky, he first changed his name to Odette in the 1950's to avoid McCarthy-era scrutiny of his Russian last name. During the 1950's and 1960's, Odette worked at the toy company Mattel, where his superlative artistic talents helped him ascend the ranks to become Package Design Director. He had a family in Los Angeles and, by all appearances, was comfortable in his success. Then during the mid-1970's something began to change in him. He dropped his middle and last name entirely and legally changed it to moses. He left his position at Mattel to freelance for other high-profile companies such as Max Factor before settling for a job as artist-in-residence at Yosemite National Park in 1974. He worked there for some time on displays and brochures, but a growing problem with marijuana led him to become increasingly restless and disillusioned. He finally left it all behind, getting into a van and travelling up and down North and Central America for several years while working whatever odd jobs he found. His relationship with his family deteriorated into a complete loss of contact.

In April of 1980 he finally moved to Hawai'i. It was by this point that moses' artistic inspirations and frustrations coalesced and settled on the idea of perfecting the obscure folk art of paper bag hat crafting. With the money he had left, he purchased the white van and began asking local grocers to give him whatever extra bags they might have. Some designs only required a handful of bags. Others incorporated dozens. A few took hundreds. His designs ranged from life-like replicas of Samurai and medieval knight helmets to breathtakingly surreal creations one might expect to encounter in Alice's Wonderland. It is nearly indisputable that his exquisite pieces testify to his mastery of the art form he loved boundlessly. In time he began asking tourists and locals to model the hats. A man whose talent permeated all facets of art, his photographs themselves stand as thoughtful works. When necessary, he earned money by doing some graphic design work for local businesses and advertisers. He lived humbly, never placing any material concern above the pursuit of his craft. He never sold any of his hats, nor is there any evidence he produced any on commission. Having roamed the continent as a soul-searching hippie, his most productive years in Hawai'i exhibit an almost monastic concentration. The reward for his devotion was an almost divine inspiration.

None of this came without consequences. moses stopped making hats in the late 1990's due to carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritic-like symptoms brought on by the constant folding and rolling of the stiff paper. It was just as well. Changes in the markets caused grocery stores to discontinue use of the #735 bags he used, which made the best fitting hats. The amount of time he spent in the tropical sun and his austere lifestyle brought about other health problems as he approached his 80th birthday, and in the mid-2000's he chose to abandon the van and move into government-assisted senior housing. The greatest consequence of his passion, however, was the toll it took on his relationship with his family and the world at large. moses' wanderlust pulled him away from a wife and two daughters, and the decades of separation created a difficult gap to bridge. After several attempts to contact his daughter, Kira Od, she finally replied and they reconnected. She has since visited him twice. He has been to visit her at her home in California once. Some wounds have healed, others have not. And then there are the new conflicts that have grown up between them since getting back in contact.

Kira describes her father as "a deeply conflicted man" with "lots of negative energy about him." He is reclusive, given to paranoia, and has a deep aversion to material possessions. He cannot abide even the smallest keepsake or decoration if he sees no purpose in it. He hates new advances in technology. Whether this personality was forged by the fires of moses' passion, hammered into his being by the Spartan conditions he imposed upon himself to fulfill it, slowly massaged into him by the land in which he settled, or some combination thereof is unknown. Maybe it was who he really was all along, and he simply had to walk his path across the globe and art forms to discover it.

Whatever the case, into this heady emotional soup there was ultimately thrown a catalyst for darker tendencies which haunt moses and his art to this day. In the end, it comes down to recognition. After abandoning relative notoriety and fortune in exchange for perfection in obscurity, moses' final years of life are marked by episodes of self-destructive preoccupation with promoting his legacy. He dreams that one day someone will publish a large, beautiful book about his hats with photos and descriptions of them. Exactly what further content he envisions for the book is in a constant state of evolution, though he has never achieved a concept that has satisfied him. At one point Kira even tried to help him with the project, but he bristled at the suggestion that he use digital publishing methods with which he is unfamiliar. He lashed out at her and withdrew for a few months before speaking to her gain. moses turned over his entire collection of hats to the Mingei International Museum of Folk Art in Encinitas, California in the 1990s so that they would be preserved and displayed for greater public viewing. However, his paranoia over people trying to profit from his work and his obsession with the book caused arguments with the curators there as well. Whether a book will ever be published or if moses sees it as necessary to completing his journey is a mystery, but what has been lost along the way is not.

Ironically, though Kira did not follow her father's path, certain steps of hers still crossed over his tracks. Dissatisfied with a French first name for a last name, she legally shortened "Odette" to "Od." She also became an artist with a unique relationship to sports. Working as the Kinesiology illustrator for Muscle and Fitness magazine in 1987, she was asked by Mr. Olympia founder Joe Weider to design the competition's medal. Her experiences have imbued her with a means to relate to moses, but what they share only puts in greater relief that which is lost. "I respect him as an artist, but not as a father," she says. She refers to him only as "moses." He was not a total misanthrope. He visited several elementary schools on the island to share his creations and teach students the basics of his craft. Art classes there still teach some of his lessons. You can still find moses around the island today. He spends a lot of time at the local Starbucks and the library, often wearing a simple hat he's made for himself. His entire collection of more elaborate works-- some 250 hats in all-- are still preserved at the Mingei.

A more philosophical connection between moses and Ultraman comes from Robert Sidner, curator at the Mingei. He maintains a profound respect for moses as well as the hats he preserves at the museum. To him, the collection is neither odd nor surprising. He has seen countless other series of works outside the span of what others might call traditional. That wisdom allows him to look inside the hats and see the power underneath. “This is true, genuine folk art. These are ephemeral works. They’re not going to last forever. Does that make these hats less artistic? Too often we make distinctions about ‘important’ or ‘lesser’ art. I’ve learned not to do that. Lots of things move us, and things have effects on different people. We all have immense and varied interests, and it takes that variety to make our lives full. I think what is really important is that which answers, for you personally, the question “what moves the core of the soul?” Hats are what moved moses. It’s a school of art unto itself. A few people have obsessed over it, but not many. He dropped out of society completely to pursue it. Nobody achieves anything without being intense.” The athletes seek to know their absolute physical potential. moses sought a kind of artistic perfection. Perhaps Burling pursued a deeper spiritual purity. So very few of us in life ever feel that calling to such a heightened level of humanity. Perhaps the underlying reason for our collective failure to comprehend them is our personal inability to conceive of ourselves as something extraordinary. It contributes to a new set of difficulties for those possessed by inspiration.

From whichever face of the prism one may view it-- Burling, moses, or the legend of Coconut Man in which they are entwined-- the story is not so far removed from Ultraman as one might think. In some ways the accidental adoption of Coconut Man as a kind of mascot for the race embraced a valuable allegory for the sport. Coconut Man is an embodiment of what might be called "the dark side of love,” in which passion becomes its own prison. He tries to escape the entrapments of civilization in pursuit of authenticity. He seeks to reach his full potential for a goodness he struggles to define, its meaning lost to him amidst the noise of society's mass-marketed definitions. He makes passion his north star and vows to follow it wherever it takes him, even if that destination dashes him against the rocks of some hostile reef. But perhaps in the end no amount of intrinsic reward can fill that basic human need for interaction and acceptance. Taking the path less traveled often means never knowing the comfort of another's hand to hold. Over the long term, this carries the danger of not only becoming lost to society, but to ourselves as well. Unable to reconcile the determination to remain true to oneself and the desire to be accepted by one's fellows, Coconut Man falls off the edge of his solitary world and tumbles into the abyss of blind obsession.

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