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Once Upon a Midlife

Book review by Bert H. Hoff

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Alan B. Chinen, M.D., Once Upon a Midlife: Classic Stories and Mythic Tales to Illuminate the Middle Years. (Los Angeles, CA: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Perigee, 1992)(order on-line)


Allan Chinen

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Allan Chinen's books

Alan captures the essence of what this Menís Work is all about. The magic disappears and aspirations of the hero fade into an ordinary, unfulfilling life. The myths we bought into as to what it is to be a man donít work. As we descend into the waters and develop our emotional and feeling sides, the women in our lives have discovered the fire and the assertiveness in theirs. A contemporary cultural crisis? No, Alan tells us, a natural midlife transition known to people for thousands of years.

Alan has assembled a series of delightful tales that capture this transition perfectly. Hundreds or thousands of years old, drawn from cultural traditions around the world, they are refreshingly contemporary. A feminist friend of my wifeís came to stay with us, having great misgivings about meeting one of "those Menís Movement men." For our after-dinner entertainment, I read "Stubborn Husband, Stubborn Wife." Once we finished laughing over this delightful tale, we had a wonderful conversation about men and women, and she came away with a much-deepened appreciation for the soul- work that we are trying to do with our Menís Work.

We are all familiar with the hero-oriented fairy tales of our youth, where the prince conquers the foe and wins the hand of the princess. Alan presents for us another genre of fairy tales, the "middle tales" that describe what happens after the heroic phase. While the heroic tales reaffirm the cultural norms, for example what men and women "should" be, these "middle tales" are countercultural, telling us what life is really like, irrespective of cultural expectations and roles. The tales also develop the themes of moving from rational intelligence to true wisdom enriched by life experience, the inevitable role-reversals that emerge in mid-life, and coming to grips with our own mortality.

His explanations of the tales are enjoyable, straightforward blends of his own learning experiences, the experiences of his clients, and a wealth of psychological and anthropological studies. He does an excellent job of developing the individual stories and interpretations into a cogent whole which masterfully develops his themes. This "must read" book is an undiscovered classic that will enhance your understanding of your life.

Related stories:

 Midlife and the Shaman/Trickster, an interview with Allen Chinen

 Beyond the Hero, book review of another book by Allen Chinen

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