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Cities and (in)Sanity

Now, for some paradoxes about where we choose to live.

Greater Pittsburgh, as a community, has proved to be a great place for my wife and me. The region, which includes parts of West Virginia and Ohio, offers excellent opportunities for people like us. But, those opportunities come with a cost.

Before reviewing the toll I pay for working in Pittsburgh, I wish to list the amazing benefits of the Steel City:

  • I teach at a top-ranked research university, among the best in the world;
  • My plays have received public readings (and, soon, stagings) by some of the most supportive actors, directors, and crews possible;
  • I can walk large sections of the city, after I find parking, avoiding mass transit; and
  • My office is a short walk from one of the largest urban parks in America and the Phipps Conservatory.

But, cities still exhaust me. As a result, I commute an hour or more each direction so we can live in the exurbs. People consider where we live to be "country" though I consider the country to be what we see as we enter Ohio: open fields, rolling green hills, and cattle.

A recurring theme of this blog is my deep distaste for dense urban environments. I hate cities. It is no mere dislike; cities leave me physically and emotionally traumatized. It can take me weeks, not hours or days, to decompress from the sensory overload of a commute into the urban core where we live.

One reason we had to leave Minneapolis was the dense nature of the urban neighborhoods. Although the neighborhood in which we lived features single-family homes with small patches that pass for yards, the density was too high for my nature. I have detailed the misery of that experience.

Pittsburgh is worse. Much, much worse. It is an old icy, dating back to pre-Revolutionary days. The row houses resemble New York or, with the steep hills, the core of San Francisco. Driving in Pittsburgh is a nightmare, unlike anything I've experienced anywhere else. Walking is also more difficult.

As I approach the city, my anxiety increases. My stomach churns. My head aches. I dread the city.

Leaving the city is as stressful as entering. Paths in or out require navigating bridges, tunnels, and left-hand exits. People honk their horns and gesture, believing my 65 to 70 mph speed in the left lane is merely to annoy them. I have witnessed the shock of these drivers as they realIze the "fast lane" is actually a short, 20 mph hairpin exit to another freeway. The sounds of screeching brakes sticks with me. One woman in a white compact car flashed her lights, used her wipers, gestured, and was definitely screaming at me, and then realized we were in a left-hand exit to a busy suburban street. She skidded into the middle lane.

The city itself is noisier than Minneapolis. The abundance of hospitals explains the endless sirens.

Once in the city, I do much better because I'm learning how to avoid the very things that make it urban. I like the park, the conservatory, and the quiet pockets that resemble small towns within the city. I do not like the financial district or the entertainment district. I'd rather stick to the quieter spaces.

But, I am a playwright and a professor — both of which require traveling through and working within the urban core at times.

At least I know that at the end of any day in the city, I get to return to the peace and quiet of our "country" home.


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