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Ever since Erik Erikson coined the term "midlife crisis" more than 30 years ago, male melancholy around halftime has been poked and prodded six ways to whaddya say. Theories abound. At the bio-extreme is the idea that the midway heebie -jeebies are hardwired, a hormonal analogue to female menopause. The skeptics believe that the 40s funk is just a self-fulfilling prophecy for self-indulgent guys.

The idea of a midlife crisis offends a man's up-and-at-'em American aesthetic. And given all the therapeutic silliness that gets sold as midlife fixes, it's tempting to dis the male willies as psycho-bunk. Bad idea. Male midlife crisis is a time-honored trough, described by Dante and Shakespeare and endured by citizens no less manly than Ulysses S. Grant, who only saved the republic before his swoon, and the astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who got a mite moody after his meander on the moon.

"There are multiple paths through midlife crisis," says Jacquelyn James, Ph.D., associate director of the Murray Research Center at Radcliffe College. Each man's journey is unique, shaped by his history and his hopes, his relationships, his blood pressure, and the angle of his dangle. To be sure, the intensity of the midlife passage varies greatly. For some men, it's a dark ordeal that includes depression and is best navigated with a doctor's help. For most, it's a less perilous, but still demanding, midcourse correction. But whether the midlife transit is traumatic or just tricky, self-medication with bourbon is a bad plan, and nobody is served by pretending we're too tough to have troubles.

Our goal is to come through middle life as better men. Sure, we'll be a tick less quick off the dribble, and yes, we'll need to rely on guile once in a while. But we'll also be wiser, calmer, stronger of spirit, and even more attractive to women of all ages. There are no perfect routes to your best older self. But we asked experts and some men we admire for guiding thoughts to ease the transit.

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What the Hell is a Midlife Crisis?

Justice Stewart's wisdom about pornography applies to midlife, too: tough to define, but you know it when you're in it. Men in the muddle often use words such as "aimless," "confused," "lost." Previously surefooted guys come to question things in which they once believed--marriage, work, friendships. Some men report losing their vitality, their joy in things they used to savor. In the book Flyfishing through the Midlife Crisis, the New York Times executive editor Howell Raines describes this feeling as "disappointment and restlessness that tiptoe in on little cat feet."

Here's a symptom sampler: insomnia, fatigue, despair, morbidity, inability to concentrate, ruefulness about roads not taken, dread that life holds no more surprises, regrets, sharp longing for something (a gunmetal Porsche, a cigarette boat) or someone (the FedEx woman, Gina, whose smile is a promise of overnight delivery). Men in crisis often obsess about big questions, as in, "Does my life matter?"

"Many men start to think in terms of how little time they have left," says James. In severe cases, men fantasize about just lighting out, shucking off their old lives and starting over in the South Pacific or the Sawtooth Range. At 36, the world's our oyster, but by 44, we're trapped inside the oyster, gasping for air.

The midlife stew often starts with some garden-variety boredom. If you've been hoeing the same row for 20 years, only an idiot wouldn't wonder if there aren't some more interesting rows somewhere else. On top of tedium, we often get our first bolt of serious bad news: the death of a parent, trouble in a marriage, a career setback, the transformation of the 8-year-old who thought you were God into the adolescent who thinks you're the devil. Crushing chest pain and the word "biopsy" can set a fellow to thinking about what he's done with this life. (Know what symptoms warrant a trip to your doctor: Learn the 7 Pains You Shouldn't Ignore.)

Often, come our 40s, some undeniable facts start eroding the dubious pillars on which we've built our notion of a man.