By Petula Dvorak: There is a crisis at the Masonic Lodge in Capitol Hill on this cool night, just a few days after the rituals and mysteries of their sacrosanct organization were transformed into a best-selling novel and published around the world.
WASHINGTON — There is a crisis at the Masonic Lodge in Capitol Hill on this cool night, just a few days after the rituals and mysteries of their sacrosanct organization were transformed into a best-selling novel and published around the world.
An ancient secret has been revealed? A sacred seal has been broken? A limb severed?
No — in the world of men, this was much graver.
"Ah, man, we're out of pizza?" one hungry Freemason in a tuxedo lamented to me, the only woman in the room and therefore the one the famished men turned to when they were flummoxed by a lack of food.
The Masons were prepared for the questions about their organization but not the pizza shortage. This being the nation's capital — Naval Lodge No. 4 on Pennsylvania Avenue is just four blocks from the Capitol dome — they gathered last week for a session on talking points to deflect the impact that Dan Brown's latest thriller "The Lost Symbol," a sequel to his blockbuster "The Da Vinci Code," might have on the wider world's perception of Freemasonry.
After the pizza was wolfed and Diet Coke had been chugged from red plastic frat-party cups (What? No wine? No skulls?), they had a PowerPoint presentation.
The book, which sold 2 million copies in its first week of release, has Brown's signature character, a tweedy Harvard professor of symbology, racing against time across the streets of Washington to unlock the ancient mysteries of the Masonic order. The nation's capital — with its portraits of Founding Fathers in their Masonic get-ups and giant Masonic temples — is fertile ground to explore the organization that is so shrouded in mystery that it is debatable whether it's 300 or 700 years old.
The Masons are a tantalizing subject, claiming George Washington and Mozart among the group's members and refusing to reveal the secret rituals, oral recitations and traditions that only members know. For years, the group, which focuses on providing fellowship and opportunities for community service, has fended off accusations that it is a cult.
"I've been getting the questions at work already," one Mason said. "And my wife is hearing all about it at her job, too."
Ah yes, the long-suffering wife of a Mason. How do they endure the constant meetings, the secrecy, their hats, pins, sashes and the apron? That fez?
"He comes out with that thing on and I'm, like, really?" said Cindy Hsu, a Washington lobbyist and the extraordinarily patient wife of a Shriner, which is a type of Mason.
They're the guys who drive the tiny cars at parades and fund a nationwide network of children's hospitals. OK, so the clown-car thing deserves a wifely eye roll, no?
Amid the lore that Masons like to evoke is a mythical distress call among the brethren that served as a juicy clue in "The Lost Symbol": "Is there no help for the widow's son?" they ask.
But I wonder about the poor widows themselves, left alone so many nights, while the husband is at The Lodge.
What is he doing? What are they saying? And does she have to call him "worshipful master" when she's telling him to put his dirty socks in the hamper?
The Masons definitely have a women problem.
Their organization of 1.5 million men includes Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and more. It requires only that members believe in a supreme being and have the desire to better themselves. For many men, their wives might be the supreme being in their lives. But women still can't become Masons. (They are allowed to join affiliated women's groups, including the Eastern Star.)
The Internet is filled with the digital woes of Masonic widows, women who call the lodge his mistress, who lament that the order has brainwashed their husbands. My guess is these women may also have done their time as poker, football or baseball widows. Did he really mow the lawn and take out the garbage unbidden before he joined a group of guys setting up the block party's moon bounce?
Some women welcome the quiet time to themselves.
"I'm glad that he has his own activity. He can go out and hang with the guys," Heather Calloway told me. She is the director of special programs for the Masonic House of the Temple in Washington, where Brown dropped in for a surprise visit yesterday after writing it into his book.
Calloway, the wife, daughter, granddaughter, sister and niece of masons, said she gave Brown high marks for general accuracy but had some good laughs this past week, reading "The Lost Symbol." Especially the embellishments about the temple.
Same for Hsu, who enjoys her reign as queen of the remote control when her husband is at the lodge.
"OK. This is what I call it: day care for men. They let him come over at 6:30 after work, they feed him, let him play with his friends and he comes home all tired and ready for bed," she said.
Hmm, I begin to wonder if the Masons would take my husband and our two sons.
"We're basically the hot dog guys, the ones always handing out the free hot dogs at the street fairs," acknowledged David Johnson, the 38-year-old worshipful master of the lodge on Capitol Hill.
That mundane truth is what makes the breakneck adventures, the hairpin chases, the conspiracy theories and the mystical musings so funny to the wives and Masons reading "The Lost Symbol."
"Seriously? Conspiracy theorists think they are plotting to rule the world?" Hsu asked. "They can't even get it together to decide what to eat for dinner."
Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post's Metro section.