We Are Not Geeks!
On a recent sunny Saturday afternoon, while the rest of Broward County was frolicking in the surf or paying homage to mammon at one of our many temples of consumerism, six men gather in a sterile back room at the Imperial Point branch library on Federal Highway. Some are wearing a day's growth on their chins, others cutoffs and battered tennis shoes. One man sports a T-shirt with the enigmatic statement "I Dig Pig" emblazoned across the front. They sit in hard plastic chairs under harsh fluorescent lights, shuffling their feet and tapping their fingers on the desks.
These are not young men -- the presence of a teenager notwithstanding, the average age in the room probably tops 40. Yet there is a palpable school day's unease in the air, a dimly recollected sense of nervousness, failure, and dwindling possibilities. Perhaps the men can still hear the voice of a high-school guidance counselor gently reminding that not everyone can be a doctor, a lawyer, or a scientist and that the world needs salesclerks, typists, and ditch diggers, too.
In those days there was no choice -- everyone took the Scholastic Aptitude Tests, the standardized instrument that helped The Man figure out what to do with you. But these guys are about to hoist number-two pencils of their own volition, each paying $30 for the privilege, to find out if they're among the smartest 2 percent of Americans. If so they'll be welcomed into Mensa, an international society for the highly intelligent that exists primarily to remind the intelligent of their intelligence. If not, well, who the hell wants to hang out with a bunch geeky Mensans anyway?
Statistically speaking only one person in 50 is Mensa material, which means the odds are that no one in this room will make the grade. Test takers are a self-selected subset of the general population, however, meaning they likely have some inkling that they might be just a little brighter. So chances are actually good that someone in the room will be anointed a person of superior intellect. Should that happen he or she could join the 340 or so Mensans in the Broward County chapter of American Mensa.
The question is, would they want to? Granted, these brainy Broward denizens are an eclectic bunch, prone to bursting into song while gathered round a table drinking iced tea on "pub night," or launching into a heated discussion on the merits of school prayer before lunch has even settled at weekly afternoon bull sessions. They count teachers, pilots, architects, artists, musicians, and at least one Catholic bishop among their members. The guy who spearheaded the group back in the '70s once had a different job every week for a year to prove it was possible.
Still, wouldn't it be more fun to pound a couple of cold ones down at Hooters with the guys, the game on the big-screen TV as barbecue sauce dribbles down your chin onto your stained T-shirt?
By dint of the 30 clams each of the men just shelled out, they're honorary Mensans for the next two weeks or at least until the test results come back. That means they're allowed to attend any Mensa gathering for the next fortnight. It's an excellent entrée into this secret society of synapses, this meeting of the minds, this "dating service for dorks," as Vanity Fair writer Christopher Hitchens so eloquently put it. And it's a way to meet a few Mensans and perhaps answer the question once and for all: Are the intelligent really different from you and me, or do they just dress worse?
Lya Korda's eyes gleam as she relates the tale of meeting Jeb Bush -- not out of admiration for the governor but because the punch line's so good.
Bush was in Davie visiting the Graves Museum of Archaeology, where Korda worked as a designer painting backgrounds and murals for exhibits. When Bush asked to be shown around behind the scenes, his handlers brought him to Korda's department. Korda stepped away from her desk momentarily and when she returned found that her coworkers had thrown a cloth over it. She removed the cloth. Again she stepped away, and again she returned to find the cloth on her desk. When Bush came by and introduced himself, she said, "Now I will show you something people don't want you to see," and pulled the cloth off her desk, revealing a color photo of Pres. George Bush, middle finger extended in the universal one-digit salute, over a caption that read "Don't blame me I voted for Perot."
"Jeb pissed his pants laughing," she recalls.
Korda is a feisty septuagenarian who refuses to give her exact age. Born in Hungary, she has an erratic résumé, which is not at all uncommon among Mensans: designer, journalist, artist, psychiatric nurse. She's also a pilot and last year earned a bronze medal in her age class in foil-fencing from the United States Fencing Association.
She's a slight woman who drives fast, smokes a lot, and treasures good company. She's a card-carrying member of the "Bitches Coven," a group of female Mensans who get together every Friday the 13th to drink a little of Korda's home-distilled, 100-proof kumquat liquor, swap jokes, and talk about life.
She joined Mensa in 1963, one of the first few hundred Americans to do so as the group was getting off the ground in New York City. For her the group was, and is, a place that felt comfortable. "I found friends of altogether different backgrounds, religions, faiths, races, you name it. Most of the people were straightforward. If there was a phony among us, which there certainly was, you found out right away."
Korda left Hungary for Scotland in 1947, where she found work as a nurse's aide at a psychiatric hospital. In Hungary she had been a graphic artist, but as an immigrant she took what work she could find. Despite having to learn English and the basics of nursing on the job, she worked her way up from nursing assistant to the person in charge of an entire ward. Patients loved her, she says, "because they thought I was one of them."
In 1954 she came to the U.S. at the behest of an uncle who wanted her to help him with his engineering business. Though the uncle died before she got here, she came anyway and wound up waiting tables for a short time before landing a job in New York City as a textile designer. She met her late husband, an atomic scientist with latent artistic gifts, in Mensa. "I found my great love there," she says.
Her husband was also a pilot, and the couple took their twin-engine plane on a two-month tour of South America. Once back in the U.S., they crashed while landing at a small airport in upstate New York, ditching the plane between two trees. The wings were ripped off the plane, but Korda, her husband, and a passenger survived.
She recalls the ordeal with more bemusement than terror. "And there I was lying down, and I saw the biggest ass of my life," she says. "Somebody had stepped over me to try and help."
Then she pauses to light another Benson & Hedges. "Why did I tell you that story?" she asks rhetorically. "It isn't interesting."
Korda's husband, whom she declines to name, died 12 years ago, leaving her to rattle around the couple's spacious Plantation home. The house is filled with the trappings of a long life lived together by two people with very active minds. Chairs and tables are overflowing with books, pamphlets, papers, and files. Bottles are stacked in the kitchen, soon to be filled with a fresh batch of kumquat liquor. The living room looks like the sorting area of a Goodwill store. The most striking object is a nine-foot-tall carving of intertwined nymphs, one on top of the other in a choreographed reach for the sky. The statue is carved from a single piece of wood by a man with no formal art training.
Korda's own paintings -- predominantly landscapes, a few portraits -- decorate almost every wall. Where there's no more wall space, the paintings are stacked on the floor, six or seven deep, like LPs in a bin.
In one corner is an old whitewall car tire, one side blown out, frayed cords dangling, mounted on a stand. It's Korda's facetious comment on modern art, which in her opinion is no kind of art at all. She slapped a name on it -- "The Big Bang" -- and entered it in a show. The judges threw her out.
"High intelligence doesn't mean you have common sense," she says. "You'll find I'm crazy as a loon."
The genesis of Mensa lies in a chance meeting between two strangers on a British train bound for Surrey one hot August day in 1945. The younger man, Lancelot Lionel Ware, was a university student who had a reserved, proper, upper-crustiness about him. He sat quietly perusing a copy of Hansard, the British parliamentary report, occasionally glancing out the window at the passing countryside.
His compartment mate, Roland Berrill, was a boisterous, nattily attired Australian sporting a full, dark beard and moustache. History tells us that it was Berrill who first tried to strike up a conversation. "Is that Hansard that you are reading, young man?" he asked.
Undaunted by his icy reception, the brash Berrill plowed on. Ware eventually warmed to him and the two became friends, exchanging addresses before getting off the train.
Sometime later Ware received an invitation in the mail from his new friend, suggesting they get together. They met regularly in the next few months, and in 1946 Ware gave Berrill an intelligence test. Ware was fascinated by intelligence because he'd been left the task of educating his sister after his father died. And if he was going to do it, he was going to do it right, based on sound scientific principles.
Berrill did well on the test, which impressed Ware. Finally they understood why they got on so swimmingly. And wouldn't it be jolly, they reasoned, to find others of superior intellect with whom to take tea?
Though there is some quibbling as to whether Berrill actually got the idea for a high-IQ society from a radio broadcast, he is generally accepted as the group's founding father.
The first official meeting occurred in October 1946. Berrill was going to call his new society the High IQ Club and planned to publish a journal called Mens (Latin for "mind"). Upon further reflection the name was deemed precariously close to that of a skin mag, Men Only, so Berrill decided on Mensa, Latin for "table." His justification, apparently, was that mensa is the first word of Latin most people learn (though what that has to do with anything is lost to the mists of time).
Mensa got off to a rocky start. Within five years both Ware and Berrill had abandoned it. Many prospective members no doubt did the same because of Berrill's strange predilection for aristocratic pretension, which included having to write an effusive letter of admission to a Mensa "queen." The queen was a woman robed in finery whose job it was to maintain esprit de corps among the group. The second queen, a woman named Vera Davies, created a problem for Berrill when he decreed that all members should refer to one another by their initials. Davies' initials were unspeakable in proper British society, so Berrill gave her a middle name, "Rose."
Mensa somehow survived its founders and grew, sluggishly but appreciably. Today there are about 100,000 Mensans in 100 countries, including 45,000 in the U.S. Actress Geena Davis is a Mensan, as is cruiserweight boxing champion Bobby Czyz, Parade columnist Marilyn Vos Savant, and Playboy Playmate Dr. Julie Peterson. Mensa's public relations department also claims Lisa Simpson of The Simpsons, Frederick Crane from Frasier, and the Blue Power Ranger as members.
There is quibbling now over what, if anything, all those Mensans should be doing with their collective brain power. Some Mensa literature makes mention of a high-minded think tank to advise governments, thereby harnessing the gray matter of our best and brightest to make the world a better place to live. Which may sound high-minded, but it's poppycock. There is no Mensa think tank.
What Mensa really resembles is an outlet for people who score in the top 2 percent of intelligence tests to get together and tell bad jokes, talk about the weather, and find love. These gatherings look rather unspectacular -- a group of people around a table at a restaurant or a covered-dish supper at someone's house. And frankly, they are unspectacular. Nothing visually distinguishes a Mensan from a Densan (the unofficial name for the other 98 percent of us).
A recent luncheon at the Crab House restaurant in Sunrise saw 13 middle-aged people -- a few more men than women, all white -- tucking into fish sandwiches and making second and third trips to the seafood buffet while exchanging pleasantries. No one stood up to give a stirring discourse on chaos theory, and there was nary a pocket protector in sight. The highlight of the afternoon was the gentle theological prodding of a Baptist architect by a Catholic bishop. Do the Baptists really believe the Bible is a literal translation of God's word, the bishop queried, or is it simply divinely inspired prose?
The architect responded that yes, the Bible is indeed the word of God, then likened the Good Book to a Beethoven symphony in which the listener mustn't scrutinize every note but rather seek inspiration in the entire composition. The conversation then turned to the crash of EgyptAir flight 990.
That's the reality of Mensa. Still the image persists -- elitist bores, eccentric physicists, computer programmers who look like they haven't seen the light of day in three years. It's a problem that isn't lost on the top brain. "We have humanized Mensa in my term as chairman," says the jovial Mensa International chairman David Remine, a retired electrical contractor from New Jersey whose schooling ended with an AA degree from the Navy. "I have tried to change the image from an elitist, nerdy, geeky organization. Look, one in 50 people qualifies for Mensa. It's not that elitist. I live here in New Jersey, a couple towns away from a Little League team that played in the Little League World Series. How many Little Leaguers get to play in the World Series? Not very many. I am sure that's more elitist than Mensa."
Before being elected to his present post, Remine was the chairman of American Mensa. He took over at a time when membership was on the decline and presided over a turnaround. This year he hopes to add 1600 new members to the rolls.
He's marketing savvy, always looking for new ways to increase non-dues revenue. One way to do that is through a series of books capitalizing on the name -- The Mensa Guide to Chess, The Mensa Guide to Casino Gambling, et cetera. The organization also puts its stamp of approval on games members decide they like and markets them under a joint agreement with Barnes & Noble. And of course there are Mensa T-shirts, coffee mugs, and bumper stickers.
All of which, Remine hopes, will serve to make Mensa a household name instead of a punch line. "I forever get the question about the stereotypical Mensan," he says, "the nuclear physicist with one brown sock and one black one. In all honesty we do have some people with pocket protectors and tape on their glasses, but it is certainly not common, not the average Mensan at all."
Joe and Carol Vitale are the kind of married couple so attuned to one another that they finish each other's sentences.
"We once spent a week in Mexico City," says Joe, explaining the Vitale idea of a family vacation. "Now we didn't go to Cancún or Acapulco. We went to Mexico City. We never even saw the ocean. Instead we went to Our Lady of whatever it is "
"Guadalupe," Carol chimes in.
"Guadalupe," repeats Joe. "We saw the murals of "
"That was our idea of Mexico," says Carol, now finishing the story. "Our [15 year-old] son Kevin loves museums."
The Vitales are the unofficial repositories of the history of Broward Mensa. They both go back to the early days when Broward Mensa broke away from the Miami chapter. They are living proof that Mensans can be as plain as white bread.
Joe, 69 years old, is a retired printer; Carol, 66, a former secretary. Neither graduated from college. "I have a very limited education," says Joe, getting comfortable in a green recliner in the living room of his Pompano Beach home. "Very limited. I never finished high school. I finished the eighth grade."
As a child Joe spent several years traveling from town to town with his mother, a Pentecostal evangelist. They'd put on a revival, stay for four or six weeks living off donations from the local congregation, and move on. "I can remember in 1939, still the real Depression," he says. "We held a revival in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. The minister of the little, itty bitty church they had drove two Model T Fords up to the window of the church so we would have lights. We lived in one room with a blanket strung across so we would have a bedroom. I slept on a cornhusk mattress."
Carol grew up in relative affluence in Detroit. She attended college but never graduated. Her father, Richard Frankensteen, was one of the founding members of the United Auto Workers. He once ran for mayor in Detroit, and Carol recalls the smear campaign that kept him out of office.
"My father was German," she says. "His opponent went into the German section of town and said he was Jewish. They went into the Jewish sections and said he was German. They went into the white sections with a picture of my father and the black candidate for city council."
The Vitales met in Mensa, each joining after previous marriages fell apart and prospects for finding a partner in other venues looked slim. "When my first wife left me," says Joe, "and I had my four kids, I loved the kids a lot and we did a lot of things together, but I needed some adult stimulation. I needed someone to talk to. I didn't want to talk about the kids' runny noses and the high prices at the supermarket. I wanted to find someone who could chat about something interesting."
By their reckoning the Vitales have hosted some 300 monthly Mensa parties in the last 25 years in their Pompano Beach home, second Saturday of each month. The gatherings are characterized by much eating and merrymaking but surprisingly little drinking.
"In that 25 years, I've only seen one person get drunk," says Joe. "When you talk about a Saturday-night party for adults, you think of drinking. But in 25 years, 300 parties give or take, only one person drunk. I don't know, that kind of impresses me."
Phil Snaith is the self-described enfant terrible of Broward Mensa, though at 55 years old, he's getting to be less "enfant" and more "terrible" all the time. Mensans like to boast that they're tolerant of everyone regardless of race, creed, religion, or political outlook. Snaith, an unabashed conservative who drinks and smokes with gusto despite the rest of the group's abstemious nature, puts that credo to the test.
"I don't know about now," he says, "but we have had some genuine, out-of-the-closet homosexuals in the group. If I am supposed to put up with them, they can put up with me."
Visitors to his Sunrise townhouse are issued a plastic squirt gun to keep Snaith's Boston terrier, Sir Winston (as in Churchill, "the greatest man of our time, if not all time"), off their leg. Just brandishing it is enough to keep Sir Winston at bay, though he has perfected the hangdog look that makes you long to invite him onto your lap.
The next thing visitors get is an invitation to take a seat in Snaith's darkened living room, perhaps on the brown tweed couch directly underneath two maces and an ornate spear. Snaith is quick to offer a cold Pabst Blue Ribbon and if you smoke will gladly pass you a Viceroy.
Meeting Mensans is always a bit unnerving at first because you don't know whether they'll dispense with pleasantries and immediately bury you with their encyclopedic knowledge of Byron or maintain social etiquette long enough to determine that you are an idiot deserving kind and gentle treatment. Snaith, to his credit, doesn't seem too interested in one-upmanship. "Don't let the intellectual pretensions fool you," he says of Mensa. "It's just a good excuse to get together. If it weren't for Mensa, we could all be lepidopterists getting together on a Saturday night."
With his smooth gray hair and owlish glasses, Snaith looks like the uncle who will buttonhole you at the family reunion and not let up for hours. But he's a gifted raconteur, filling in the gaps and pauses with fresh anecdotes or timely tangents to keep things rolling. Though opinionated, he avoids the pitfall of taking himself too seriously.
He's a lawyer and runs a one-man shop out of his living room, but business has been "like what the little boy stepped in" lately. A few clients here and there, including one in jail who promises to paint Snaith's townhouse when he gets out. But nothing that will keep Snaith in Pabst and Viceroys indefinitely.
No matter. Mensans are fond of saying that high IQ doesn't necessarily correspond to success in business. In fact, research indicates material gain is much more strongly correlated with perseverance than with intelligence. Mensans quite often are perfectly happy to get along in life on their own terms.
Such is the case with Snaith. Thanks to his late wife's assets, his townhouse is paid for. The big-screen TV is paid for. The Falcon's Head III (a 22-foot Catalina sailboat kept at a friend's house) is paid for.
"It's all according to your standard of success," he says. "If the measurement is money, then I haven't made it. If it is being independent and having the time to do what I want, then I have done pretty darn well, at least up until the last couple years."
Then, being a Mensan, he quotes poet Robert Burns from memory:
What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an' a' that?
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine,
A man's a man for a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
The honest man, tho' e'er sa poor,
Is king o' men for a' that.
Born in Sebring, Snaith grew up all over the South as his family moved with his father's job at Goodyear. He went to Emory University in Atlanta, where he majored in organic chemistry until realizing that organic chemistry is a particularly exacting science. "I discovered that gas chromatographs don't lie," he says.
So he switched to political science and graduated in 1966. Three years later, after finishing law school, he was eligible for the draft "in the same class" as Bill Clinton, whom he refers to as "Bubba" as in, "Don't care much for Bubba." He was living in Miami working as an insurance adjuster for Kemper when he joined Mensa. At the time it seemed like a good way to meet women, he says.
"I was not one to go fishing in the secretarial pool, and you'll excuse me if I say so, but it seemed to me there was not an unmarried Gentile in the entire city. I figured Mensa was as plausible a place as any to meet a lady."
The trolling was pretty good for a while, he adds. "If you go into a bar and see a good-looking woman, you don't know if she's a bubblehead. At a Mensa party, you see a good-looking lady, and they are already presumed to have some IQ. Both questions are already answered."
These days eligible women seem harder to find, at least in the Broward Mensa chapter. And as the average age of area Mensans creeps higher, Snaith finds fewer people each year who share his views on having a good time. "The group, as a bunch, is a rather sober lot," he says. "More's the pity. I feel sorry for people who don't drink."
In drink there's inspiration, says Snaith. Sober people simply never get silly enough to tap into the part of the brain where real creativity lives. As photos displayed on desks and walls throughout his townhouse attest, Snaith is an inspired costume designer. Mensa parties in years past have seen him dressed as Castro ("especially if the party's in Miami"), half of the Masters and Johnson sex-research duo, Bubba the clown, a well-endowed Scotsman, and in honor of the Gulf War, Darth Invader. "Anything worth doing is worth overdoing," he says.
Snaith's hands tremble slightly when he holds up the photos for inspection. Slight tremors occasionally race up and down his arms, and he's having difficulty lately grasping keys, unlocking doors, and doing other fine-motor-skill tasks. Doctors have found nothing wrong, which in this instance is very bad news. "I believe it was Sherlock Holmes who said, 'Once you have eliminated everything that is possible, whatever remains no matter how improbable, must be the answer,'" he says.
Deductive reasoning, therefore, points to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease. There is no test for the fatal disorder, so it is diagnosed by eliminating other possibilities.
He laughs at the idea of not being around long enough to "see Bubba out of office," but there are times when bemusement gives way to fear. "I'm good most of the time, then in the middle of the night I will start feeling sorry for myself and me and [Sir Winston] blubber and howl at the moon, sort of like when my wife died."
And what of the six men gathered in that sterile library back room? Do they belong on the far right side of the bell curve with Korda, the Vitales, and Snaith? Or are they somewhere in that fat hump to the left where most of us will wile away our days in blissful ignorance?
That's impossible to say. To protect the possibly fragile egos of those who don't make it, all test results are kept secret. Results come in a plain, unmarked envelope. If it's a big, fat envelope, odds are it also contains an application to join. You're in. A slim envelope is the Mensa equivalent of a Dear John letter. Sorry.
What can be stated is that each of the six battled valiantly against the clock, sweating out not one but two tests designed to trip them up. Test number one, the Wonderlic, is widely used by employers to weed out dead wood. It packs 50 questions into 15 minutes, so there is little hope of finishing. It is a dispiriting jumble of analogies, opposites, and construction problems. What is the opposite of tree? How is a diamond like a cake?
The second test, proprietary to Mensa, begins with a little story. Test proctor Alex Williamson reads a pedantic tale about a Dionysian festival filled with ancient Greeks falling to their knees, much dancing, and a flute player blowing a sassy tune on his pipe. The questions come later, after test takers have had a chance to forget the specifics.
Questions on the story come after the meat of the second test, which features more picture analogies (grape is to vine as mountain is to ); a baffling section on making change given a specific number of dimes, quarters, nickels and pennies; and a set of math questions having to do with bleachers in a football stadium and flowers in a circular flower bed. (Hint: it has something to do with pi.)
Williamson then hits the group with a dozen questions about that Dionysian dithyramb (a fine Mensa word). Then he collects the tests and puts them in a manila envelope, which he'll send to Texas to be scored. To get in, prospective Mensans have to make a passing grade on only one of the two tests.
On the way out into the afternoon sunshine and back into the world, the guy with the "I Dig Pig" T-shirt sheds a little light on possible motivations for subjecting oneself to the scrutiny of Mensa. His parting statement is simple, yet oddly resonant:
"I'm a moron. I had nothing better to do."
Contact Bob Whitby at his e-mail address:
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