A young man believes he will never die. More important, he believes he will never have to wear a hat. For years I was just such a man: I strode about with wind in my hair, sun in my hair, fingers in my hair, and just plain, good old thick hair up there. In those heady days of my reign over the planet Earth, my spurs were shiny, my sword had an edge, my heart could take a licking and keep on ticking.

Then, on a dark day not too long ago, I felt an ill wind blow cold across those northerly reaches. The golden meadow of old -- where amber waves of moussed grain once multiplied unchecked -- had blown away. The thick shocks of youth had been supplanted by the rude shocks of middle age.

We're talking bald spot.

Faced with nightmare visions of the tundra -- the frozen, treeless plain described in chilling detail in sixth-grade geography -- I did what all men do when they feel their grip on the brain forest receding. I went in search of a proper hat. A middle-aged man believes he will die, but not before he has paid off his children's college tuition bills and gone to Hawaii at least once to hear Don Ho. This belief is fueled by the middle-aged man's rationalization that life, while much too hard, is still somewhat fair. In a demented spirit of compromise under this spell of self-delusion, the middle-aged man agrees to the reality of a hat.

Such a man finds himself -- as I did -- exposed to the Phases of the Hat. They are sequential, extremely painful and as absolutely unavoidable as comments like "A hat? You? Wearing a hat? It looks good. Really."

First, of course, is the Denial phase. It ends the moment the hairstylist plants that little hand-held mirror behind your head and gives new meaning to the term skinhead.

Next comes the Ball Cap phase. As a boy you wore a baseball hat, and now, as a balding adult, you do the same. It's a way of regaining control, of going back to those halcyon kidhood days when hair spilled out of your hat like milk out of your nose.

But somehow in middle age, the O's cap just doesn't quite go with the suit and topcoat. Women give you a wide berth on the street. In airports they insist you go through the metal detector a second time.

The next few phases follow at heartbreaking speed: the John Denver Fake Cowboy Hat phase, the Ridiculous Russian Fur Hat phase, the Floppy Dork Hat phase, the Irish Walking Hat phase, the Irish Skipping Hat phase, the Irish Falling Down Hat phase and even the Pathetic Earlapper phase.

By now, all your attempts to look cool while trying out every hat imaginable have failed. Your morale has sunk low enough -- and the temperature on top of Bald Mountain has grown cool enough -- that there is only one phase left. And it is the most dreaded phase of all: the Dad Hat phase.

Remember that felt monster your old man wore? The same hat worn by Karl Malden in those traveler's check ads. The hat you swiped out of the closet on Halloween? The one your father was wearing that day it dawned on you he was your old man?

Yes, today is the first day of the rest of your life and here's the hat that goes with it: a fedora. It comes from the Latin fed, meaning FBI-look-alike, and ora, meaning pray for this guy, he is practically embalmable.

A fedora, with its 40-acre brim, feels uncannily like someone has managed to beach an aircraft carrier on top of your head. You're afraid to make any sudden turns for fear of taking out a building. The first time you walk down the street wearing a fedora and see your shadow on the sidewalk, you're positive it's your old man. At least groundhogs can run back into their holes for six weeks. But you keep going and when you catch your reflection in a window, the hatted head that stares back is screaming "What're you looking at!"

There is a theory that because Harrison Ford made the fedora look sexy in his Indiana Jones movies, a fedora will make you look sexy. This is exactly why they invented the phrase "No way, Jose."

The thing is, Indiana Jones never had to chase his hat. It never came off in a wind, not even when he was climbing under that truckful of Nazis. Which raises a problem. If your fedora is comfortable (which seems like an oxymoron), it blows off in a stiff wind and you have to run after it. You haven't lived until you've grunted after a fedora for two blocks in heavy traffic, risking your life for your father's hat.

Of course, if it doesn't blow off, it leaves a red band around your head and pulls the skin of your face so tight your eyebrows are raised in a permanent look of sharp surprise. The Homer Simpson look comes immediately to mind.

In the end, there really is only one alternative, but it takes a brave man, braver then me: Bare all and bear it.

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