When I'm calling yoo-oo-ooo-oou...

At my house, we greet the dawn yelling.

Every morning, it's a mad scramble to get the kids off to school on time. I'm busy getting ready for the day, too, racing through a shower and hunting up yesterday's blue jeans in preparation for another day in the home office. My two sons and I end up in opposite ends of the house, shouting back and forth. I demand that they get dressed and brush their teeth. They scream back excuses and complaints and pledges of compliance.

The result often is strange, as in this recent exchange:

Me (from the living room): "Achoo!"

Six-year-old (from his room): "I'm hurrying!"

Such miscommunication comes because we live in The House That Devours All Sound.
It's an old brick house, solidly built, with lath-and-plaster walls instead of modern Sheetrock. It does a good job of keeping out street noise and muffling altercations in distant rooms.

Sometimes, the boys resolve their arguments before a parent is even sure what's going on in there. Other times, we go running at the piercing cry of a child in pain, only to find the child shrieking with laughter when we arrive. It's hard to tell exactly what you're hearing in a house that chews up sound waves and spits them out as garbled noises.

So we have a lot of room-to-room conversations that go like this:

Kid: "Augu tanay ob myma neff!"

Me: "What?"

Kid: "Augu tanay ob myma neff!"

Me: "What?!"

Kid, frustrated, louder: "Augu tanAY ob myma NEFF!"

Me, starting to stew: "Come in here if you want to talk to me!"

Kid, shambling into room, rolling his eyes: "I got an 'A' on my math test."

Me: "Oh, why didn't you say so? That's great."

Kid stalks away, shaking his head.

Confusion can ruin even the best moments of child-parent relations.

Partly for this reason, and partly because the old vocal cords were going, I sought a high-tech solution. For Father's Day, I requested as my annual tribute an intercom system for the house.

My wish was granted.

It's your basic Radio Shack model, three anonymous gray boxes, each with a button to push when you want to be heard. Essentially, they're walkie-talkies for the home. Plug them in, push the button and your voice booms into the farthest reaches of your property. Use a deep voice, and it sounds like a message from God. If that still doesn't get the kids' attention (and you'd be surprised how often that's the case), the boxes also have a button labeled "call." Push that button, and the intercom emits a high-pitched squeal, one that can't be easily ignored, one that says, "Come over to the intercom right now and listen to what I'm saying." The intercoms also have a button labeled "lock" that keeps the channel open so you can eavesdrop on whoever's at the other end of the line.

We installed the intercoms in the living room, in the detached studio where I work and in the basement, which doubles as a rec room for the kids. Now, when I want the boys to turn off the blaring TV downstairs, obedience is as close as the nearest intercom. And if they pretend they can't hear me, there's always the dreaded "call" button.

The system isn't foolproof. The 6-year-old tries to play songs with the shrill call tone. And, as I learned, the "lock" button is dangerous.

I was in the studio, supposedly working, while my wife was in the house with the kids. I didn't realize one of the kids had left the intercom locked on. When my computer game cheated (really!) and I suddenly was defeated, I uttered a very bad word. A series of words, actually. Multisyllabic and blue.

My wife came on the intercom and said calmly: "Are you all right out there?"

I quickly realized what had happened and was forced to explain that I was playing instead of working and the computer had gotten me riled.

"Oh," she said, "I thought maybe you'd fallen down again."

At least I think that's what she said. I couldn't really tell. Somebody was pushing the "call" button.

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