My father-in-law has ear hair like a wolverine. It fans out from the auricles, wafting from the ridge lines like cilia, like gray feathered plumage. Most men who grow hair along their ears get it clipped by the barber, but my father-in-law, a pulmonologist at the University of North Carolina, has let his ear hair grow free since the 1980s. When there's wind, it waves. It's his freak flag flying an inch and a half long. He'll never cut it. "I'm like Samson," he says, chuckling. "It's the source of my power." People who know him say they don't notice it anymore, and after months of sitting next to him at the dinner table, I don't either, except as a symbol of achievement: He's so accomplished, even his ear hair is mythic.
I, on the other hand, had to move in with my in-laws.
My wife and I never planned to live with her parents for very long. We thought of it as a temporary stay, a camping trip. We were returning to the States after working abroad for the past 18 months, and we needed a place to crash until we got settled. Apparently, though, our flight from Paris to Raleigh-Durham killed the global economy. Jobs in our area, as in many other parts of the country, have disappeared. What we'd originally envisioned as maybe a three-week visit is approaching a six-month occupation.
Stories in the media have nicknamed people like us "boomerang children" -- adults forced by the downturn to show up on their parents' doorsteps. But we don't think of ourselves as occupying forces. I picture us like two performers on a USO Tour. We dress to impress. We smile wide no matter what's on CNBC. We're here to support the troops. I've recently taken on the Bob Hope role at dinner. I'll spoon out rations and ask, "So how are we all doing tonight? How was your day, Mike? How was yours, Marilyn?"
The guilt, though, and the awkward awareness of living on your in-laws' largesse, is tough. It’s an ego-belittling situation; I’ve signed my own leases since I was 20. One morning I found myself changing loads in the laundry room, thinking: You're an adult married man and you're folding your mother-in-law's brassiere.
We're happy, of course, to do our part. To cook and clean and chip in for groceries. And it turns out I'm handier at programming universal remotes than I realized, and my wife is helping her mother redo the bedroom closets. I think we're good guests, and on most topics we're pretty tolerant. We recognize that they have their way of doing things and we have ours, and if ours are more sensible and modern, like putting empty glasses directly into the dishwasher rather than leaving them around the house, then we don't always need to point this out.
For example, my father-in-law wakes up each morning by retching into the sink. Loud enough so it penetrates walls. It's woken me up on a couple of Saturdays. Apparently some dentist 30 years ago told him to brush the back of his tongue until he dry heaves.
"You're telling me you don't do that?" he says. "It's not the way it's supposed to be done?"
"What," says my wife, "to the point of vomiting?"
"Not that there' s anything wrong with that," I add.
In Europe, it's common to hear about young professionals living with their parents. With the continent's high rents and taxes and its population density, it makes sense. Over in Japan, grown children not only live with their parents, some of them never even leave the bedroom. But in the U.S., with 50 states and wide open spaces, there's almost a compulsion to go out and break ground, to build a cabin. Expand and claim one's territory. Put up fencing and breed a brood. So returning to the nest feels less like going in reverse than stopping, which is the equivalent of defeat.
According to an AARP study done in January, only 5 percent of Americans over 18 live with their in-laws. But more than 40 percent of the respondents said they would be comfortable with such an arrangement, moving in with family, if it became necessary. The truth is, we've got a pretty good deal, particularly because my in-laws enjoy having us around.
Did I mention my mother-in-law specializes in Mediterranean cuisine? That my father-in-law has season tickets to UNC basketball games?
I found recently that Harper's keeps indexes of its old articles and stories organized by topic, including “adult children living with parents.” It's one of those discoveries you wish you could take back. It's grim material. One story, “Farmer Finch” from 1885, relates a family's fortunes after the local bank collapses. You see the context. Their savings are depleted, the farmer's daughter has to give up on her dreams. Trees in the landscape are “a most unbending and heartless family, which meant to give neither shade in summer nor shelter in winter.” And the opening line is a tickler: “It was as bleak and sad a day as one could well imagine.”
Frankly, it's depressing, each night sleeping in someone else's home. I miss having a roof to my name. Our situation isn't an "All in the Family" cliché, but it's still easy to see reality in plain terms: I live with my in-laws, and I can't say when that will change.
My wife and I both use exercise to cut down on the strain. Which means that these days, my running odometer has clicked to new peaks. In November, I ran 49 miles up and down the nearby hills, past cow farms and abandoned barns. My mileage in December was a bit higher. Then in January, I ran 76 miles, including a 10-mile day, which left me ecstatic. It was the farthest I'd ever run. Then I developed shin splints.
The mornings, truthfully, are when it's worst. That's when job-listings Web sites show the same openings as the day before (none), when the news headlines are refreshed (doom and its synonyms). And since the Web is both television broadcast station and newspaper printer, never mind a place where, thanks to Facebook and Twitter, every person I've ever met since high school regularly updates me on their mood, it's hard to escape the hive mind's anxiety.
No panic's ever been reported by so many in so few characters.
Then there are the intimacy-concealment tactics. I can't say too much, but it's communication by discreet signals. When my wife and I close the door to the back den, my in-laws know not to come a-knocking -- because inside we will be balancing our expenses.
For the most part, though, my wife and I feel lucky. Loving relatives and home-cooked meals are solid levees against a recession. We'll leave when we can, but for now, we're grateful.
Before moving in with my in-laws, I never had cable television. A typical evening was re-watching a "Poirot" DVD. But recently I've been introduced to, and become an enthralled fan of, the Home Shopping Network. My in-laws watch it late at night to unwind. They don't buy, they graze. The point is to watch and enjoy the mad banter, the salesmanship, the chatter of people selling gems for $24.99.
"It's a terrific bargain for what's essentially priceless," the hostess will say, and the four of us smile because it's true.