I did some work for the U.S. Postal Service recently.

I did some work for the U.S. Postal Service recently.

I'd like to say yes, I was the one who sold you those Gregory Peck Forever stamps just before telling the person behind you that I couldn't ship her package if its contents were fragile, liquid, perishable or potentially hazardous.

That was someone else, though. Although I've often daydreamed about working at the post office usually while standing in line at the post office this recent assignment entailed work that I could do at home, at my own desk, with my own mail.

You think that sounds easy, but that's because you've never worked for the post office like I have. I'm here to tell you that I haven't worked this hard since my college statistics class. I bit my nails. I twisted one foot around the other one and chewed on my hair. Before I turned in my work, I considered asking the post office for the chance to earn some extra credit. Maybe I could organize their postage drawers, or tidy up their workstations.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. It started with a phone call. The caller was an extremely friendly person who talked very fast in a language I couldn't understand. Wait, no, he was speaking English, but with such an accent I couldn't take in a word he was saying.

I felt sheepish about this, the way I always do. Some people can understand English regardless of the speaker's accent; I never can.

"Excuse me?" I'm forever saying. That's OK once or twice, but after that a person's supposed to catch on, for goodness sake, not keep squinching up her face and asking "What?" Some people have a talent for understanding English regardless of accents, and some people are embarrassingly dense. I'm the second kind.

Still, by dint of the caller's unrelenting good nature, I finally grasped the gist of the call: I was being invited to take part in a U.S. Postal Service research project called the Household Diary Study. All I had to do, the friendly voice told me, was answer a few questions about my mail each day for a week. And for that, I'd receive either 100 U.S. stamps or $30.

Well, I jumped at the opportunity. Not so much for the free stamps as for the chance to be an indisputably good American, a citizen who steps up to help her country's postal service design systems that "use resources most effectively, develop strategies for making wise decisions, and monitor the effects of electronic technology on regular mail service," according to the Household Diary Study Q and A sheet.

The Q & A sheet was just one of the many items that arrived in a large packet a few days later. I also received a Question Booklet, an Instruction Booklet with colored index tabs, seven day-of-the-week Answer Booklets and various other items, such as a "Photo Quick Start" sheet with photographs of a survey participant completing each step correctly and a postcard titled "I'm done, what do I send back?" It took all of my self-control not to re-punctuate that title ("I'm done. What do I send back?") and send it back.

The first day was a Monday. Feeling important, I carried the day's mail to my desk, sat down, and arranged everything in front of me: Monday's Answer Booklet, the Instruction Booklet, the Question Booklet and several pens.

Sorting the mail was the first task on the agenda. (Just like real postal workers in the real post office!)

Sorting turned out to be both enlightening and scary. First-class/presorted first-class; presorted standard, a.k.a. PRSRT STD, nonprofit, packages and expedited materials and so on.

I studied the postmark of each piece of that day's mail. I answered lists of questions: Return envelope? Political materials? Coupons? CAR-RT SORT? CUST MKTMAIL?

I answered more questions about our reaction to the mail - "Useful information we like to receive?" "Interesting or enjoyable but not useful?" - and what we did with it: "Read by a member of the household." "Set aside for reading later." "Discarded without being read."

I squinted, nibbled my nails and chewed my hair. It took me longer to work my way through one day's mail than it took me to give birth to my firstborn.

By Wednesday, I was frankly hoping the mailbox would be empty when I opened it. Receiving only a flier and a utility bill was an occasion for rejoicing.

Still, I'm proud to say I didn't shirk my duty as a citizen. I followed directions to the letter ("OK to choose more than one;" "Refer to the mail piece size template on page 2;" "Skip to L;" "Specify on answer booklet page 14;" and when the only correct answer was "Other," I described it, as directed, in a special box on another page.)

On the last day -- a Sunday --I gathered all the materials together, sealed each day's Answer Book inside the corresponding Answer Book Envelope, bundled it all into the huge postage-paid envelope and mailed it.

Somewhere in the envelope was a card on which I had marked my choice of lovely parting gift: 100 stamps. Allow nine or 10 weeks for delivery, I was warned.

So far I'm still waiting. But I'm not concerned. I have absolute confidence in the U.S. Postal Service. Someday my prints will come.