Side note: Living on the Road, pt. 2 (and final thoughts on meeting Dr. Russ Church)

My conversation with Dr. Russ Church is still buzzing in my head. Dr. Church is a fantastic scholar and one who comes from an incredible academic lineage. He was a doctoral student with Dr. Richard Solomon at Harvard University. This is notable for a few major reasons — both having to do with Dr. Church and having to do with the history of Psychology.

Dr. Solomon was a major figure from Psychology. He was a behaviorist who studied comparative psychology (rats, dogs, etc) during the one of the most productive eras of that research (colleagues with Skinner at Harvard and many other notables). Solomon made an important and lasting impact on Psychology with his studies of opponent-processing in motivation, his work on  avoidance learning (many other topics, as well), but also for his mentorship of students. Among  his students are included Dr. Church (of course), but also Robert Rescorla, Martin Seligman, Bruce Overmeir, Susan Mineka, Thomas Landauer, and others. As per my conversation with Dr. Church, Solomon was a generous mentor in helping his students to succeed. All in academia will tell you: order of authorship is important on articles. The first author on a publication is credited with the principle work for a project, and there are governing ethics from the APA and APS that dictate how authorship is determined. In the 1940s-70’s when Dr. Solomon was in the heart of his academic productivity, one may note the common occurrence of his students serving as first author on publications with him. This wasn’t common and it was an act of generosity and support from Solomon to help his students (now, a group of incredibly notable and influential scholars, themselves). Clearly, whatever Solomon did worked out well.

Consequently, Dr. Church developed into an influential scholar in his own right getting his start with an amazing mentor. In the years to come (and as noted in a previous post), Dr. Church  moved his research program forward with a series of experiments akin to a chess master. Incremental pieces of big ideas, amounting to a comprehensive body of work with clearly determined major goals. Dr. Church was incredibly strategic and effective in his career. So was his choice to work with Solomon determined in that same strategic approach? After spending some time in conversation with Dr. Church the answer is very clear:


When getting ready to go to university as an undergrad, and motivated by the influence of his grandfather,  Dr. Church had two institutions in mind: Michigan and Harvard. He was accepted and attended Michigan as an undergrad. Harvard said no. Church then went to work getting all the extra curricular activities as an undergrad that he thought would help. He was a very successful undergrad scholar,  active working in labs, and he built a strong application for graduate school. He didn’t yet know Dr. Solomon (who was really just starting his career at Harvard. Notably, Solomon was only at Harvard briefly in his career, and moved on to the University of Pennsylvania where his career more fully blossomed.

No, Dr. Church knew he wanted to attend Harvard . With a bit of a thumb in the eye of to those admissions staff who rejected his undergrad application, he accepted admission to Harvard as a grad student and did his PhD there.  Take that, Harvard!

From there, and having fulfilled his desire for both Michigan and Harvard, the strategic approach of the master seems to have taken hold.

It’s a little wild, to me. Here is Dr. Church, now with more than 60 years at Brown University (he started there even before completing his dissertation), and he still has a gleam in his eye and a wry smile when he thinks about why he went to Harvard and how it set his career in motion. Sometimes its those minor setbacks that can really drive a person forward. Certainly that appears to be the case for Dr. Church.

Okay, now a quick side note from the road. I have to say, getting mail is very tricky and I’ve got a little story for you that seems to have nearly caused my being arrested on federal charges.

As we’ve been traveling, we rely heavily on modern technology: GPS. I know we all have phones that do this, but we purchased a wonderful independent GPS for this journey to mount in our car. That means we can use our phones for other stuff while maintaining the route display on the GPS, plus other cool features. Love, love, love having a GPS that is not my phone! We bring it everywhere, including on a side trip to family on the west coast last week. Well, as happens, we accidentally left it there. Thousands of miles away our GPS sat in my mom’s living room while we set up for continuing this project in Rhode Island. My mom is amazing, incredibly supportive and loving, and she quickly sent the GPS to us helping to alleviate this unfortunate error on our parts.

But,  when you are living on the road, where do you actually send something? We don’t have an address here.  Rather, we needed to receive packages as general delivery! General delivery — it’s like this holdover from a more agricultural time when mail was delivered to a central post office and people would come in from their farms every few days (weeks?) to collect it. In most zip codes there is usually one post office that does general delivery.

Sounds easy, right?

So my amazing mom sends the GPS general delivery to Providence and we go to pick it up. Except, the post office doesn’t have it. “Well”  the helpful  postal guy says at the desk “maybe it’s still at the central processing area across the street. Just go over there and pick it up!”

Sure,   we can do that. Across the street we go. We leave one large, industrial office space serving postal customers to the very large industrial warehouse of the Providence post office. Now the post office closes at 6PM, but the industrial warehouse postal  center closes at 4 PM. We arrive at the warehouse at 4PM. Ring the bell. No response, no one comes to the door. We wait.   We kvetch as a few minutes pass and no one opens the door.  At 4:07 someone opens the door and comes out, smiling and happy (most likely because she just finished her shift). I hold the door and think, how lucky, they are still there I can go ask about my package!

That all seems great because we really want our package. Also, it’s Saturday so if we don’t get it today there is no chance of getting it on Sunday (and we leave town on Monday), and clearly lots of people are still working.

At this time in the story, I need to add an important caveat. Yes we were sent to this warehouse, and yes the package may be here, but the outside door has all kinds of warnings about ringing the bell and awaiting service. It also has a sign, no admittance without authorization, etc. Visitors must report to the site manager.

Nonetheless, we’re here, they’re here, the door is open. Surely, I can politely ask someone for assistance?  I can report to this manager and see about a package I was sent over to receive?

In to the warehouse I go, and walk towards someone with a desk who seems managerial.

I find someone and ask about my package, mentioning that they sent me over here from across the street. They are very nice. Or rather, one person offers to look for the package, another lets me know (in no uncertain terms) this is a federal property and I am not allowed inside. I am to exit the premises or be arrested for violation of federal space. Okay, easy choice, be arrested or wait outside? I ponder my fate. Am I willing to go to prison to await their searching for a GPS?

No, court expenses are definitely greater than the total cost of the GPS. I head back out.

Thank you, Providence postal service, for sparing me from federal charges and also trying to find my package!  If that is the only federal law I violate this trip, then I’ll be happy about that. Also, no more messing with the post office. Lesson learned.

By the way, I didn’t get my package. They looked and looked again, but that priority package sent last week did not make it to Providence by Saturday as anticipated. Oh, USPS, you may be reliable, but you’ve had better days.

Okay, so it was frustrating, but better a delay on the package than being sent to federal prison, even though I think I’d look good in stripes. Here’s my question, if I had served time in federal prison for a postal violation, would I be barred from working in the prison mailroom?

(Photo: WaterFire in downtown Providence, RI. And, wow, way to go Providence you are an amazing city! We’ve loved the  WaterFire festivities, the creepy, fun H.P. Lovecraft  artifacts around town, and the beautiful architecture!)


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