The conversation at a back table in a local restaurant shifts from the lunacy of giving O.J. Simpson house guest Kato Kaelin his own radio talk show to the wonders of quantum consciousness.
The dozen or so men and women who have gathered for a weekly luncheon are a diverse group, ranging from the president of a magic club who whimsically declares himself “President of the Pacific Ocean” to a retired engineer who studied under Nobel laureates in Switzerland.
Some are dressed in conservative suits and ties and rush through lunch, while others wear T-shirts emblazoned with colorful designs and dine at a leisurely pace.
This is not your ordinary lunch group.
They are members of the Orange County chapter of Mensa, an international group that welcomes only those who score in the top 2% on various intelligence and standardized tests.
“I regard it as a support group for the severely gifted,” said Westminster resident David Lubman, 61, a longtime Mensa member who owns a consulting business. “People join Mensa because they’re looking for some people who might not mind their odd ways.”
While membership in the Orange County chapter has dwindled lately, its ranks remain an active bunch, converging regularly for lunch, happy hour and a variety of other social affairs. They go hiking; play pool, poker and other games; watch arty movies; star gaze, and have Zodiac and Jacuzzi parties.
The mere mention of the word Mensa sometimes evokes an image of elitists quick to snub those with less mental prowess. But Orange County’s 742 Mensa members insist that they are, for the most part, normal folks who joined the organization for friendships, possible romantic interests, emotional support and, of course, intellectual stimulation.
“Mensa has really become an extended family to me,” said Eve-Lynn Brooke, an attorney from Corona del Mar who joined Mensa in 1981. “When I joined, I was living alone, and I found that if I wanted to do something on a Wednesday or Thursday, I could look in the monthly newsletter and find people who were doing all sorts of things. I knew I would always be welcome.”
Lubman, an acoustics consultant, said he enjoys the company of other Mensans--as they refer to themselves--because they get his sometimes off-the-wall and oblique jokes. He joined the Los Angeles Mensa chapter in 1975 because as a widower, he thought it would be a good way to meet women. In 1980, he and other Orange County residents started their own local chapter.
“Trying to find people who are intellectually compatible is so difficult, especially once you leave school,” said Lubman, who received a bachelor’s degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology and a master’s degree from USC. “But a lot of people join Mensa thinking they’ll meet people who think just as they do. And they’re horrified to find that there are people who are very conservative and wildly liberal.”
Mensa, which means “table” in Latin, was founded at Oxford University in 1946 by two barristers who believed that bringing together highly intelligent people in a “round table of equals” could help solve the world’s problems. Since then, Mensa has grown to more than 100,000 members in 100 countries.
Despite Mensa’s nearly 50-year history as the premiere group for the super-brainy, its numbers have shrunk in recent years, including in Orange County, where the membership peaked at well over 1,200 in the late 1980s.
Members attribute the decrease to the recession, the difficulty of drawing young members, and people having increasingly busy schedules. The majority of members are from 30 to 50 years old, and about 65% of all Mensans are male.
“Mensa doesn’t tend to have a broad appeal to those in college because they have more than their share of intellectual friends,” Lubman said.
Still, the Orange County group is the third-largest Mensa chapter in California, and the 12th-biggest chapter in the country, according to national Mensa figures.
Along with using a variety of IQ tests as a basis for admission, Mensa will accept those who score in the top 2% on such exams as the Scholastic Aptitude Test and the Graduate Record Examination. For instance, those who scored 1,250 or higher on the SAT between September, 1977, and January, 1994, are eligible.
Based on Mensa’s reputation as a brainy clique, it’s easy to imagine a Mensa gathering as a bunch of subdued scholars pontificating on the wonders of the world--and sometimes that is the scene at Mensa get-togethers. But the group is also filled with punsters and jokers who seize opportunities to poke fun at themselves and others.
At a Thursday luncheon in Newport Beach, the conversation among five Mensans swayed from the art of duplicate bridge games to used bookstores in Orange to the marvels of scrapple, a seasoned mixture of pig parts and cornmeal set in a mold and served fried.
Three of the Mensans knew each other, but the other two were new members who came to test the waters with the “Good Grub” Thursday lunch group.
“The public perception is that we’re nothing but Ph.D. astrophysicists,” said new member Stephen Janssen, a minister at the First Presbyterian Church of Orange. “But what you find is everything from dog catchers to college professors.”
For the most part, members are congenial toward one another. But sometimes conversations can turn into heated political debates when members discuss such issues as gun control or abortion.
A few years ago, Orange County members also were in an uproar over an April Fools issue of the group’s monthly newsletter, “The Oracle,” that poked fun at certain members. Copies of the issue were burned before they could be sent out, but that only proved to anger some, who cried censorship, members said.
Despite such flaps, members maintain that they don’t quibble over little things. Mensa, they say, serves a vital role because it is many members’ only link to Orange County intellectuals.
As a production line worker at McDonnell Douglas, Terry Smith of Anaheim joined Mensa because, she said, she rarely has the opportunity to have meaningful conversations with other people.
“My social life was nonexistent before I joined Mensa,” she said. “I guess I’m too much of an introvert, and I’m not getting much intellectual stimulation at the factory.”
She started attending Mensa functions because she likes to surround herself with people who will understand her jokes and somewhat obscure thoughts.
“It’s so easy to buy into the common theory that you’re strange and you don’t make any sense,” she said. “But with Mensa, you get confirmation that some people will understand.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
The Brainy Bunch
Mensa is an international society of people who have either scored in the top 2% of a standardized intelligence test or scored highly on the Mensa test. More about the high-IQ group, and a sample of test questions:
* The group was founded in 1946 by two English barristers seeking an end to world problems by bringing together fine minds.
* Mensa is Latin for table , signifying the “round table of equals” for which the group’s founders strived.
* There are 100,000 members worldwide; 55,000 are Americans.
* 65% of members are male.
* The youngest member is 4, the oldest 94.
* 48% of Mensa members are married, 20% are divorced or widowed and 32% have never been married.
Orange County Mensa
* Membership: 742
* 12th-largest chapter in the country
* Third-largest chapter in California
AND THE ANSWER IS . . .
Are you smart enough to join? Some sample questions from the Mensa mini-test:
1. If two typists can type two pages in two minutes, how many typists will it take to type 18 pages in six minutes?
2. Pear is to apple as potato is to:
a) banana b) radish c) strawberry d) peach e) lettuce
3. If it were two hours later, it would be half as long until midnight as it would be if it were an hour later. What time is it now?
4. Only one other word can be made from the letters in the word insatiable. What is it?
1. Six typists. One typist types one page in two minutes.
2. b. 3. 9 p.m. 4. Banalities.
Source: American Mensa Ltd.