Gene is on vacation. A version of this column originally ran Jan. 24, 1999.

A few feet from the barber chair in which I sat, a young mother was comforting the 2-year-old on her lap. They were next in line. The tyke was all squirm and fidget, mighty suspicious of this procedure.

In a syrupy singsong, Mom was offering reassurance. “See, that man is getting a haircut, and that man over there! See, it doesn’t hurt! Uncle Richard gets a haircut every single week!”

The barbershop was a hearth of smiles. It was indeed a timeless maternal moment, a scene to make one’s heart warm and soupy.

“Ow!” I yowled at the barber. “Owwww!” “Aiiighhhh!”

(Illustration by Eric Shansby)

“Stop slicing, you butcher! I can’t take it anymore!!”

Okay, I did not actually do this, because if I had I would have been stabbed to death by moms with scissors. But the fact is, I wanted to do it, and the impulse was so great it was nearly overpowering. These things come upon me with all the warning of a twitch, and are about as easy to resist.

I have always thought
this a character flaw, a reflexive streak of cruelty for which I must atone. But of late I have come to see it in a different light. I have come to believe I have a disease.

Alcoholics Anonymous has used similar reasoning to help millions of people confront their problem without shame or stigma. Why can’t this be done for sufferers like me? We’ll give the condition an appropriately Freudian name: The Wisenheimer Syndrome.

One becomes a Wisenheimer because it feels good, at first. You get giddy. But soon it becomes a habit, and then it imperils your health. You are always one prank, or one snide remark, away from a black eye or a fat lip, or worse. Eventually, you seek the company only of other Wisenheimers.

Why isn’t there a 12-step program for this?

Step one, of course, is recognizing that you have a problem. AA provides a blueprint. It offers a number of handy diagnostic tests to discover whether you are an alcoholic. (Ever take one of those tests? I’ll save you the trouble. You are an alcoholic.)

My test has a much higher threshold.

Are You a Wisenheimer?

1. You are sitting in the Metro, lost in thought. You look up to see an elderly woman with a four-toed cane, staring down at you balefully. “Where are your manners?” she scolds. What do you do?

a. Sheepishly surrender your seat.

b. Pretend to be asleep.

c. Get up with a grand gesture, loudly apologize for your boorish inattention, and then walk away into the crowd with an exaggerated limp.

2. Your cat proudly brings you a headless mouse. Your very first thought is:

a. “Eeeeeek.”

b. “Gaaaaak.”

c. “Now, whom can I mail this to?”

3. You are walking down the street with a colleague from work, and you suddenly and unexpectedly see your spouse in the distance, coming toward you. Your colleague has never met your spouse. You are pressed for time. What do you do?

a. Alter your route, to avoid a tedious introduction.

b. Graciously make the introduction.

c. Say to your colleague, “Sometimes, when you find a total stranger attractive, you should just walk up to them and kiss them right on the lips. Watch.”

4. You are reading an article in your Sunday newspaper. You find it cynical and mean-spirited. What do you do?

a. Stop reading the article.

b. Finish the article, but then send a nasty letter to the editor, and sign it.

c. Finish the article, but then send an enthusiastic letter to the editor, praising the writer as your kind of person, and sign it “Imperial Wizard, International Order of the Ku Klux Klan.”


Two or more C answers: You are a Wisenheimer.

One C answer: You might be a Wisenheimer.

No C answers: You might be Mitt Romney.

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