Maria Seiling thought it was a solid, motherly sort of thing to do. "I wanted to teach her some responsibility," she said. "I wanted to teach her what owning a home meant."

So 11 years ago, Seiling had the deed to her house in Alexandria rewritten.

Henceforth, her daughter, Marlene Meresman (who was 19 and pregnant at the time) would be the official half-owner.

Now Seiling is so furious that she and her daughter speak only occasionally. Meanwhile, their dispute is in the hands of lawyers. Soon, it may be up to a judge or jury to decide.

What Marlene Meresman wants is for the house to be formally placed in trust for her 11-year-old son. Meresman, who lives in Fairfax County, claims that would only make legal what she and her mother intended at the time Meresman's name went on the deed.

Maria Seiling doesn't recall any such intention.

She contends that she has been dragged into the middle of a squeeze play. She sees it as an attempt by an ungrateful daughter to cash in on a mother's 11-year-old generosity. And she says she fears it is an attempt to force her to sell the house and "move out into the street."

According to Virginia law, Meresman holds as many cards as her mother. She can force the sale of the house. Or she can move to have a court declare the house her son's. It doesn't matter legally that one party in the matter is the mother of the other.

"They are tenants in common," said Richard Lane, Seiling's attorney. "All she (the daughter) would have to do is file a suit for partition. The court would probably appoint an appraiser, the house would be sold, and that would be that."

According to Meresman's attorney, Robert L. Fredericks Jr., Meresman hasn't decided whether to move for a sale or a trusteeship. But in either case, the scenario is not likely to feature Seiling sitting among boxes on a streetcorner, Fredericks said.

My client's desire is to be sure her son receives the benefits from it (the house) at such time as she (Seiling) no longer lives there. My client isn't interested in the property for herself," said Fredericks.

"We're not trying to move in on her (Seiling), and we're certainly not trying to force her to move."

Still, now that Fredericks and Lane have their talons firmly imbedded in the case, it seems to be a war no one is destined to win, even if it never reaches a courtroom.

Two centuries ago, our wise old founding owls had good reason to insist that property cases like this one travel through the same legal system as murders.

Without due process, land might be stolen or ruined. One party might cheat the other. Borders might be disputed. Taxes might go unpaid.

Besides, formal courts were the only halls of justice around.

But nowadays, an average citizen's decision to undertake a legal journey is more like the decision to bluff in a poker game than a question of right or wrong.

Do I have more money than my adversary? the smart litigant asks. More patience? A slicker lawyer?

In other words, the decision to pursue the case turns on considerations that have nothing to do with law. And the courtroom is often unnecessary. Cases are settled everywhere from the courhouse men's room to the McDonald's on the corner.

So if Meresman vs. Seiling cannot be settled except by an impartial arbiter, why not strip the process of nonsense?

Why not go before an administrative judge whose only robe is the one he puts on at home when he gets out of the shower?

Forget juries and all the associated hassles. Hear the case in a room where an aide offers you coffee, not one where they tell you to spit out your gum. And schedule the case on a docket that won't be crowded with every other legal fish in the sea.

It may not make mother and daughter love one another again, but it will at least clear the air quicker.

Maria Seiling agrees. "All I really want is to settle this in as simple a way as possible," she says.

She could -- if only the legal system wouldn't get in the way.

I try not to drink either one, but . . .

The prices of both Tab and Coke in vending machines are about to leap to an average of 35 cents a can, according to a thin friend who stays that way by ingesting oceans of Tab.

He wonders how that can be.

After all, he argues, Tab (no sugar) and Coke (not much other than sugar) can't cost anywhere near the same to make.

Vending machine companies agree. But they defend common pricing by pointing out that the two drinks cost the same to can, deliver and advertise.

Moreover, they say, pricing them both at 35 cents avoids having to set the delicate coin-receiving mechanism in a vending machine for two prices (that's apparently very complicated).

Is the red light on your horse manure detector glowing? Mine, too.