Feature

On losing a hat

Why do we become so attached to seemingly insignificant physical objects? And what happens to them when they're lost?

Four months ago my hat was lost. This was not the first time it had disappeared. I once paid to have it shipped to our old apartment from a hotel in St. Louis, where I had left it. I like to imagine my hat alone in its carefully prepared shipping box in the FedEx plane, like a passenger in one of those deluxe Qatar Airways cabins, resting in suffocated luxury. In the same year I also managed to leave it in New York. In fact, my hat took more solo flights in 2016 than the average American.

The hat in question is (or was: as we will see I have some curious opinions about the metaphysics of lost items) a white snapback cap with a navy bill. On the front panel in blue letters, surrounded by stitched gold, "U of M" was embossed with "The University of Michigan" just below, tautologically, as if somebody needed to be reminded that it was not a Mizzou or an Ole Miss hat. When I purchased it in the summer of 2015 (just before the start of Jim Harbaugh's first season as the head coach of his alma mater's football team) it was new in the sense that it still had the tags on it, but research suggests that it had been made in the late '90s. It brought me back to the golden era of Charles Woodson and Saturday afternoons on my father's lap, to beery kisses and shouts of joy.

The saddest thing is that it is not even an especially lucky hat. I know a man who swears the New England Patriots are incapable of losing playoff games when he watches them at a certain bar in Alexandria, Virginia. (This is not idle speculation; it is based upon years of irrefutable data, and if he had the time and the inclination the results could probably be verified by scientists.) In my years of wearing it, Michigan football did not reach a single Big 10 championship; we went 1-4 in bowl games and, of course, continued our long slump against Ohio State.

Most fans are familiar with the football gods, with last-minute field goal jinxes and willed interceptions in the half world given over to preternatural forces that govern the destinies of teams. Somehow my hat never quite managed to appease these mysterious beings. In certain games — the 10-3 win over Iowa last year — its influence was unmistakable, but in the really big moments — the infamous "spot" game against Ohio State in 2016 — it appeared all but powerless for reasons I could not explain. Perhaps it was only when I wore the hat after my children and I had taken part in our pre-game "parade routine": blasting an ancient 78-era recording of "The Victors" while stomping around the house. It is also possible there was some other unguessed configuration — donning the cap at the opening kick-off, or only wearing it on defensive possessions — that I was never able to discover. What I know for certain is that, however mixed the hat's results had been during the previous four years, Michigan football had the worst season in its 141-year history without it. The oracles are dumb.

But it seems to me ungracious to suggest that my relationship with the hat was narrowly transactional, that I loved it only because on rare occasions it teemed with mystic promise. I met Lena Dunham wearing this hat. I smoked a cigarette five feet away from Hillary Clinton, wondering whether this apparently keen Razorbacks fan remembered the only meeting between the two teams in 1999. I wore it at the New York Hilton on the night of Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 presidential election. Only a few days after purchasing it I paced up and down King Street during my wife's long labor with our oldest. I wore it in Rome for the canonization of St. John Henry Newman, including, rather perversely, in the presence of a priest friend and the group of pilgrims from the University of Notre Dame he was leading. I used to wear it every time I visited South Bend. Napkin math suggests that I have grilled at least 1,200 hamburgers, 900 bratwursts, and 120 steaks with the hat at parks and in our backyard, and drunk goodness knows how many thousands of adult beverages. I had it with me at the hospital when I learned that we had lost our daughter Winifred earlier this year well into the second trimester, a comfortable object reached for unthinkingly in a moment of near-despair.

What became of the hat, I wonder? When I was a child the repeated experience of losing something for several weeks only to see it appear suddenly in a place where I was certain I had looked dozens of times convinced me that lost things were spirited away to some mysterious realm, a kind of limbo, until whatever mysterious authority was in charge of such things decreed their return. But a part of me has always feared that an even worse fate awaits our lost objects: extinction. It seems to me somehow impossible that beloved possessions sit on park benches or in landfills for months and years and even decades awaiting decomposition. Instead, upon assuming the status of a truly lost item, in violation of the supposed law of the preservation of matter, they simply lapse into non-being.

There are more prosaic explanations. It is possible that someone found it in South Carolina, where we had been traveling for a wedding. A surprising amount of public polling suggests that Michigan is the most hated team in college football. I rather like the idea that someone saw the hat and lit fire to it. If I found a hat emblazoned with the logo of a team I despise — Florida, say — lying on a bench or a sidewalk, would I destroy it? Until recently I almost certainly think my answer would have been yes. But now I am convinced that I would do everything in my power to return it to its owner.

Last week on Christmas morning, one of the packages I opened contained a new hat. It was not exactly the same as the old one, but one feels that it would have been a kind of living blasphemy — like the revived corpse of the son in "The Monkey's Paw" — if the hat, or at least a simulacrum of it, had been arrived from the unknown country. But thanks to my wife's solicitousness, it belonged to more or less the same era: identical white panel, ditto the words and the gold stitching; the only real difference, in fact, is that the bill is also white instead of navy. Instead of a hat one can imagine Kid Rock wearing on the set of a music video in 1998, it looks like something a wealthy graduate of the University of Michigan School of Dentistry would wear on a golf outing with the marketing representative of a fluoride supplier.

This is the promise of Something New, in which the Christmas season is bound up. If it seems absurd that I have written slightly more than a thousand words about it on the website of a respectable current affairs magazine, I can only say that it would be a much drearier world if we did not mourn the losses of small things, and herald the coming of new ones.

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