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Convenient Conviction December 31, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in discrimination, education, liberal arts college, Vassar College.
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I’m having a tough time at my academic institution at the moment. It’s Open Enrollment period at Vassar College where I’ve been a tenured faculty member since 1994.

During “Open Enrollment” employees may review current benefits and select new benefit coverage. This week I handed in my form to change my health plan and I’m still smarting because of the tax penalty I’m forced to endure despite Vassar’s nondiscrimination policy that includes sexual orientation.

Since my domestic partner of nearly 18 years—the person with whom I’m been ‘civilly united’ for ten years, the very same woman who I’ve been married to for five years, and the co-parent of our two cherished children—was laid off from a position that provided medical benefits, I opted for the “Family” rate in order to cover myself and my three family members. To the College’s credit, after we LGBTQ faculty argued for it in the late 1990s, Vassar opened up medical insurance to unmarried domestic partners, both heterosexual and same-sex couples.

So, today unmarried couples employed by the College can insure domestic partners. But the benefit comes with the proviso that “paycheck deductions are monthly and pre-tax, except for domestic partner deductions which are after-tax.” This may seem like no big deal but over the course of a lifetime of employment, the dollars of tax penalty add up to a substantial sum. And then of course there is the principle.

I contacted our benefits administrator to make sure that the category “Family” would be applied in my situation, rather than the two separate categories of “Parent-Children” and “Domestic Partner.” I was told that indeed the College considered us a family but that my partner’s portion of the benefit was taxable. I was to be mollified by the fact that the taxation would be applied in the most limited possible way to my deductions and the tax hit would be roughly just $125 per month. I was to be assuaged by the statement that no one in the benefits office agrees with the Internal Revenue Service on the taxability policy but that they don’t have the option to disobey it. I wish I could feel more grateful but in fact this reality stinks.

I’m feeling stung by the national discourse about tax cuts that are occurring simultaneously with the continued Congressional dickering over Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. How will we LGBTQ people ever get equal rights in this country? One answer is that we must agitate vociferously against capitulation to discrimination that leverages the feeble excuse of compliance with laws that flout professions of commitment to equality.

Vassar College’s non-discrimination policy prohibits discrimination or harassment by members of the College community against members of the college community based on the following: race, color, religious belief, sex, marital status, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national or ethnic origin, veteran status or age. In my opinion, Vassar can demonstrate a true commitment to nondiscrimination on the basis of marital status, sexual orientation, and gender identity by compensating same-sex faculty members for the tax penalty of having our partners on our medical insurance.

Syracuse University opted to do just that early in 2010 placing that institution, as far as Inside Higher Ed is concerned, “on the cutting edge of promoting equity.” When I brought the Syracuse policy to the attention of our benefits office early last year, my inquiry was treated with silence. I raised the issue again this year, appropriately during Open Enrollment, and was told that numerous unmarried heterosexual couples were also impacted by such tax policy. But let’s remember that unmarried heterosexual couples have the choice of whether or not to enter into a marriage that is recognized by the U.S. government whereas my “wife” and I, despite our best efforts, do not.

I was proud that in celebrating the life of our president emerita, Virginia B. Smith who passed away this year at the age of 87, Vassar touted her accomplishment of a life partnership of 57 years with Dr. Florence Oaks. I wish I could be proud of a robust nondiscrimination policy as well. But at the current moment I must characterize Vassar’s nondiscrimination policy as merely a conviction of convenience.

Letting Go of Mental Formations — Images from Geophysical Fluid Dynamics December 27, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist concepts, Buddhist practice, fluid flow, meditation, Sylvia Boorstein.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

For some people, this time of year offers especially good opportunities to practice the Buddhist art of letting go of mental formations—our conditioned responses to the objects of experience. Whether waiting in line at an airport, inching along in a traffic jam, sharing a festive meal, or sitting quietly alone, one’s mind lunges towards distractions on familiar themes.

The challenge is, of course, to awaken to the moment, release that pattern of thought, and return to the present. I’d like to suggest the visualization of a geophysical process that may help in this endeavor.

The thought came to me in that semi-conscious, pre-awake state, just before the early morning bell at a recent silent retreat; a picture of fluid flow manifested in my consciousness. Later in the day on the cushion, I put it to use. I pictured the transition from laminar to turbulent flow in a fluid medium. Allow me to explain.

Laminar flow, also known as streamline flow, occurs when a liquid or gaseous fluid flows in parallel layers with no disruption between them. It’s the opposite of turbulent flow which is a fluid regime characterized by chaotic particle motion. In the simplest terms, laminar flow is smooth while turbulent flow is rough. In turbulent flow, eddies and wakes make the flow unpredictable. You can see it in the cascade of water over rocks…

….or in the upward flow of a plume of smoke.

We sedimentologists ponder “flow regimes,” from laminar through transitional (a mixture of laminar and turbulent flow) to turbulent, because they affect the erosion, transport, and deposition of rock particles, large and small, from one environment to another. They bear on the magnitude of devastation associated with floodwaters and debris flows like those brought on by recent rainstorms in California.

Turbulent fluid flow with its high velocity moves material in apparently random, haphazard motion. Upwelling, swirling eddies entrain sediment and keep it moving not only along the fluid but also up and down within it. Most natural fluid flow is turbulent like the motion of broad, deep, fast moving rivers. Only very slowly moving fluids—think maple syrup or asphalt–exhibit laminar flow. Although laminar flow can help transport material down current it moves material less effectively than turbulent flow because it lacks the ability to keep particles of sediment lifted up in the moving current.

And here’s where the business of letting go of mental formations enters the picture. On the mat, “by and by” as Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein likes to say, my mind drifts away from the breath to a thought, and the thought begins to lead me far away from my cushion and my focused attention on the breath. But I’m more able to let go of those mental formations when I picture them flowing away. They are my streams of thought, literally. And I feel them move away from my body, first in laminar fashion and ultimately dispersing into the turbulent flow regime where they scatter in eddies and swirls.

Jill S. Schneiderman is Professor of Earth Science at Vassar College and the editor of and contributor to For the Rock Record: Geologists on Intelligent Design (University of California Press, 2009) and The Earth Around Us: Maintaining a Livable Planet (Westview Press, 2003).

For more “Earth Dharma” from Jill S. Schneiderman, click here.

See also our Shambhala Sun Spotlight on Buddhism and Green Living.