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Finding a vision of home that works for the '80s

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Mention the word home, and it calls forth from each of us a flood of images. This time of year, two in particular come to mind. One takes me back to boyhood, when, racing home from school at noon through sun-dazzled snow, I plunge into the semi-gloom of the front hall. Waiting for my vision to brighten , I find myself suddenly enveloped by rich aromas from the kitchen, where my lunch is waiting.

The other, from adult years, takes me to a suburb where, also at noon, a malfunctioning burglar-alarm bell rings helplessly on a housetop. But no one answers, because in the entire neighborhood no one is home. Up and down the street, the grandparents have gone south for the winter, the children are at school, and the parents - all of them - are at work.

I'm not an old man: The time separating those two images is really rather short. But one can chart in the distance between them a change so fundamental as to shake America's social stability to the very core. It marks the waning of something we call community, a profound shift in our concept of home.

To be sure, that's not a new discovery. Repeatedly studies of our major institutions - marriage, schools, police, churches, the communications media - trace their problems to difficulties in the home. And repeatedly we fail to recognize the import of these studies. Blind to the changes in our conception of home, we continue as though nothing has changed - continue, for example, to construct neighbor-alerting burglar alarms in areas where there is no longer any real community.

Perhaps the argument needs to be put another way: that nearly every aspect of our lives is touched and shaped by our inmost conception of home. But what, after all, is home? Even a glance at recent news articles suggests that that question is central to a broad range of issues. For example:

* Is home a refuge? Runaway children, fleeing intolerable conditions of neglect or abuse, number perhaps as many as 1.5 million nationwide.

* Is home a center for leisurely, conversational meals? Americans, eating out more, are also changing the way they eat meals at home - snacking on the run rather than sitting down to the table.

* Is home a place of relaxation? A story in today's Home and Family section (see Page 21) notes that women who work outside the home are still largely responsible for doing the housework - although they're searching for ways to share the burden with the family.


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