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The Problem of Genius 

Like most people who read, I’d heard about Men-sa—the international society for those of high intelligence—but seldom given it much thought. I did know, however, that my nearly 30-year-old SAT scores would qualify me should I ever choose to join; Mensa accepts a variety of intelligence tests, not just the ones they themselves administer. On the other hand, my score on their online “workout” test was mediocre.

So when the subject of Mensa came up, I was able to rest on long-ago laurels. Yet, facing the actual test for the sake of this assignment, I had to wonder—especially given a plethora of inarguably stupid things I’ve done since the age of 16—whether I’d actually make the cut.

Mensa was founded in the 1940s by two British lawyers whose original vision involved the world’s brightest people gathering together to solve the world’s toughest problems. The only qualification for admission is a score above the 98th percentile on an intelligence test, either the one administered by Mensa itself or one of a variety of others. The idea of solving world problems was abandoned fairly early on, as it was discovered that being bright didn’t necessarily imply agreement on how to do that or even on what the problems were. The Mensa cliché: Trying to lead Mensans is like trying to herd cats. There are Mensans in the gutter and Mensans in high places.

“The only thing people in Mensa really have in common,” says New Paltz resident Bibi Sandstrom, who joined up while still residing in Indiana, “is that they scored well on a specific test on a specific day. I would personally like to believe that with high intelligence comes some degree of liberalism, but I’ve come to realize that’s far from true. The only common thread tends to be a love of books and word play. We have a senior citizen member who’s a really amazing golfer and contra dancer, and he said he always thought high intelligence and athletic ability went together—well, I’m living proof that that’s not true! There are some who are the classic pocket-protector nerd types, and then our new president—she’s covered head to toe with tattoos. She says her body is her temple, and she likes it decorated.”

On the day I go to take The Test there are five of us there at the Marlboro library. Proctor Jim Jelacic is an affable guy, full of Mensa anecdotes. He tells us that Mid-Hudson Mensa has about 200 members—about 20 percent of whom get actively involved and like to get together to eat pizza and chocolate, laugh, and watch old “Rocky and Bullwinkle” cartoons. Mid-Hudson regional gatherings are alcohol-free because they are held at SUNY’s Ashokan Field campus. A CIA chef prepares the comestibles. Other gatherings are held at New York City hotels, among other places. “There’s a mix of serious and lighter programming,” Jelacic says. “I remember one gathering where we had a woman come and discuss sex toys. So many people kept coming into the one room that we were in violation of the fire laws. The management kept telling us to disperse.”

There is one other woman here. She has driven over an hour, from Sullivan County. “My father always told me I was a genius, according to a test I was given when I was young,” she says. We are having a cigarette together, which we agree is some sort of odd comment on the dubious value of brilliance. “But all our family records were lost in a fire. Now I want to know whether he was right.”

The test comes in two parts, one of which was developed by corporate personnel types for hiring purposes and another developed by Mensa itself. There’s a lot of logic and word association, some math. It’s weird to be back in that whole Test Mode after so many years: Do not open your booklets until instructed to do so. The pencils are ours to keep. (My son will have the classiest pencils in first grade.) Okay, cow relates to butter as sheep relates to…sweater? Or lamb chop? Hmm. Well, the cow didn’t perish for the butter, so I’ll go with the sweater.

There is a short-term memory segment, an oddly poetic story we are read about a pre-Christian religious ritual and then questioned about after having taken another series of unrelated written questions. I’m grateful for my personal fondness for pre-Christian stuff. Suppose I’d found it a dull story?



All told, it’s about a three-hour experience, divided into two sections with a break in between. The testing fee is $30. Chronogram’s already picked up the tab, but when Jelacic finds out I am there as a journalist, he is ready to waive the fee anyway. Mensa would like more members.

Sandstrom understands why, and so do I. “I’d be the first to say that being smart and twenty-five cents will get you a cup of coffee,” she says. “In itself, it’s nothing. It needs to be teamed up with other attributes. But there’s a weird bias about it. You know. I worked with a guy back in Indiana, and one day he took me aside and said, ‘Now don’t take this wrong or nothin’—but you’re just one of those overly intelligent types.’ Being too smart is supposed to be a drawback?

“One neat thing about Mensa conventions—you tend to be able to walk up to just about anybody and start right in talking, no social games. A lot of people who join and come to events say, ‘Finally! People who get my jokes!’ And what’s also fun is that you can start whatever kind of special interest group or event that strikes your fancy.” Sandstrom and her Mensan husband hold a campout every summer, a less expensive, less formal alternative to the Ashokan Field gatherings.

Sandstrom teaches a panoply of subjects—auto mechanics, belly dancing, and several foreign languages, including Esperanto—to whomever would care to learn them, works part-time at the local library (“Finally! People who appreciate a compulsive organizer!”), and is passionate—in common with her husband—about travel, about getting outdoors, about having as many good experiences as she can fit in.

And about books. Project Inkslinger, begun when a region fell short of books during a flood, is one of Mensa’s rare organized efforts to achieve anything in particular beyond enjoyment. Project Inkslinger aims to get books to wherever they are needed. And besides being teased relentlessly throughout life, bright people are afflicted with a plague of excess books.

I passed, by the way. I’m not sure whether I need to spend $49 a year to join or not. I’m blessed to already know a few people who get my jokes. But there’s something satisfying in the knowledge. I can use it to console myself on days when I feel especially scatterbrained. I suppose, had I done it years ago, I would have had the perfect comeback for the men who’ve sarcastically sniped, “Oh, yeah, sure, you think you’re so smart,” but these days I simply avoid those kinds of conversations. Maybe I’m finally acquiring a little common sense as a side dish.

Mensa tests are administered bimonthly. Culture-neutral and other specialized variations are available to ensure a level playing field, and there’s a practice “workout” available online at mensa.org, as well as an at-home practice test the organization will send out on request. To find out more, either visit the Mensa Web site or contact Mid-Hudson Mensa via Bibi Sandstrom at (845) 255-5528 or Les Herring at (845)
  • Anne Pyburn meets the members of Mid-Hudson Mensa.

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