Friday, September 25, 2009

Rosh Hashanah Drash

A drash is a commentary given during a Jewish service. It is usually a commentary on the Torah portion. In Keddem Congregation, the Erev Rosh Hashanah drash is given by the president. So it's a combination of address to the congregation and a commentary. Mine is now posted on the
Keddem website.

It's not precisely what I said because I have a tendency to amplify on the spot.

© 2009 Esther A. Heller

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Thoughts on ... the Firing of Volunteers

I've been fired three times in my life. Two were about 30 years ago, one was this week.

Way back when I was young and didn't know as much about diverse communication styles as I do now, Nick and I ran camporees (many troops go camping together, workshops are held) in our Girl Scout service unit. After one, a staff person, wise, very wise, called me to have lunch. She told me that she hated doing this but there had been complaints that I "yelled at the girls." Well, I did loudly make some of them stop running in camp [a well established rule -no running, too dangerous]. It was a clash of my direct, high interrupt communication style with a very different style.

So, the team didn't want me in charge any more. BUT she said, we want you to stay involved because you and Nick are the only ones who "cross the freeway." The freeway is highway 101 at the bottom of San Mateo county. Most of our service unit lives on the west, primarily affluent, white side. The others lived on the east, mixed ethnicities, lower socio-economic, side. And indeed, we did go over an help the leaders there and championed them on our side.

Digression(feel free to skip) because I just remembered it. Once Nick & I collectively convinced the entire team that if they wanted to really be inclusive, they should hold Panorama (everyone share activities they've been doing) Day at the then new school in East Palo Alto. The week of the event, the newspapers blasted an article about how EPA had the highest per capita murder rate. Panic on the east side. I give major kudos to the troops leaders and parents who didn't pull out. Nick arranged for the police to drive by periodically. Everyone who attended had a fabulous time. As my sister Caren points out - 2am is the major crime time; certainly not 9-noon on a Saturday. Digression over.

My point above is, there are classy ways to remove a volunteer from a position. I was angry and hurt, but she kept me as an active volunteer.

I was laid off of my first engineering job, two weeks before I was planning to quit. That was actually quite sweet, so it doesn't count.

Now on to now. Back in 2000 I was recruited by the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) to negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between SWE and Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA). We knew that there were many places where SWE women were working with girls in Girl Scouting. But there was no formal relationship. In June 2001, the MoU was signed.

Then, I was tasked with making things happen. I found a great co-chair, Sue Anderson. She and I became close friends as we gathered other SWE members who were also Girl Scouts and were holding workshops and teaching girls about engineering.

The relationships built - within SWE and between the two organizations. We developed the Girl Scout Getaway, Engineering Your Future, held at SWE annual conferences. We've had over 60 girls attend through the years, learning about engineering and SWE, making friends, building self-esteem.

As time went on, I thought about successors and knew I couldn't do this forever. This week, I was asked to step aside. Well, so actually, a discussion happened. I thought I agreed to mentor new chair and co-chair with transition in about 6 months. Turns out I didn't get it, transition is happening now. When I realized this, I felt a lot of negative feelings. I felt I was misled but in retrospect, I think it was communication styles differences, that direct vs indirect styles. So then I felt stupid, because I know about these differences. But mostly, I felt hurt, angry and seriously fired. I wanted to walk away from the committee, even from SWE.

See, for me it's all about the relationships. And in Girl Scouting - where we're helping girls become leaders of courage, confidence and character, it's about relationships. But for many in SWE, it's more about being professional like in the workplace. Is it the engineering side? Is it the need to succeed in a still male-dominated field? I think that's a big part of it.

But, I'm in mourning - I've had my "baby" taken away. I built that committee on relationships, got things done on relationships. Heck, I'm now friends with the woman who makes our SWE Girl Scout event patch whom I've never met in person. True, I've been asked to stay in the group and mentor and advise. I won't share my first thoughts on that one but they weren't good. I've had a good long talk with my successor. We became friends through this committee years ago. I will make sure the transition is smooth for her sake as well as the sake of our common goal. As we say in Girl Scouting, it's about what's best for the girls.

When I was in college and things went wrong, I often said "chalk one up to experience." Four decades later, I analyze and plan and think. I draw from the experience. I learned long ago, there's a fine art to firing a volunteer.

One way step I've already used is find something else, better if possible, for the person to do. Second, do it in person; not over the phone and certainly not by email. Third, pay attention to timing. When a person is in the midst of her busiest time of year, that's not the time to insist on a hurried phone call. Finally, start and end with thanking the person for the work s/he has been doing. There's a lot to be said about saving face and acting with grace. I'll find ways to allow all involved to do the former and I'll definitely do the latter.

Shana Tova all!


© 2009 Esther A. Heller

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Hi all,

I've had some fans asking when I'll be blogging again. I have actually started a post about my experiences at the National Association of Parliamentarians convention. I hope to find some time tomorrow to finish it - I've been saying that to myself all week.

I've also just had an experience of being "fired" as a volunteer. As soon as the official announcement of the change-over happens, I'll philosophize on that as well. I haven't been on this side of that situation in over 30 years. The worst part is my paranoid imagining of conversations the firers (is that a word?) are having. More to come.

Meanwhile, Shana Tova - may you have a good year!

© 2009 Esther A. Heller

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


I'm under a deadline. I have a column due tomorrow, although I might have an extension until next Tuesday. The problem is two-fold. One, the extension is more of an excuse to futz around because I'm at a conference four of the five days. I have bunches of other things to do before the conference. Time is ticking.

The other half of the problem is I can't decide what to write on. I might revisit an old topic - there are many of them. For several years, I wrote 16 a year - that's insane and I did stop. But, what I really want to write about is things that have happened this year that are related to 40 years ago. 1969 was an amazing year.

My other problem is I don't feel like I should be putting writing energy into a blog while the column is hanging over my head along with all my presidential duties for High Holy Days. That and I'm undecided about how to use this space. On the one hand, someone I love a lot tells me that it should be a rambling of my day. On the other, I read some reviews on Amazon of the various books associated with Julie & Julia [which I continue to want to call Julia and Julie, you can see where my heart lies. Who was alive and interesting 40 years ago? huh, huh?]

The Julie & Julia book reviews had comments on Julie's blog. One stuck with me - along the lines of the reader found most blogs boring recitals of boring people's days. Ouch! The exception was blogs with themes. In my ego, I think "well, I'm not a boring person, so...." But that's why I haven't posted the last couple of days. C'mon, do you all really want to hear me ramble about my exercise class, my housekeeper, going to the post office? I thought not. And theme? My column technically has a theme, diversity but the reality is, it's whatever points I might want to make through the diversity filter. Here, I want to be even more free-f0rm.

Back to the column deadline, I'm curious if any of you, especially those under forty, like the 1969, 40 years ago, idea. Subtopics likely to include reunion experiences, Facebook, Walter Cronkite (please don't say "who?") and Ted Kennedy. I'll work in something on lessons from the past. Yes, if you're forty or over (or even 50), I like to hear your opinions too. Meanwhile, I think I'll finally eat breakfast [oh shoot, it's 11am, see my lunch date canceled cause she's sick, so no hurry here.] And I leave you with the thought that both Nick and I have had while discussion this - as the clock ticks on and the cat flops on my desk, at least he's stopped blocking the screen]. Twenty years ago, Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play......


ps, It is my intention to post my columns, after they are published in Connections, the newsletter for the Santa Clara Valley Section of the Society of Women Engineers

© 2009 Esther A. Heller

Saturday, September 5, 2009


Welcome to my blog!

In 62 days (plus a week), I will be turning 62 years old!

I have been writing an op-ed column for two different newsletters of the Society of Women engineers for about 14 years. The column is called Thoughts on .... For example, Thoughts on ... Balance or Thoughts on ... Affirmative Action or Thoughts on ... Movies. Sometimes, I negotiate my topic with the editor if the newsletter has a theme. Sometimes, I just write about what I feel like. Always, I write through a diversity focus. Always, I tell my editor to lie to me about the deadline. Some people are prompt meeting deadlines, others are not. I consider it a diversity issue.

I have been writing a travel log for family for the past 4 years. It started when my late father had his stroke. He was in a hospital and then a nursing home for several years. I sent my messages to my sisters who could then take and read them to him. I started putting up photographs and more people got involved. Shout outs seemed quite popular.

Finally, I've been having a great time updating my status on Facebook. The format feels a bit small to me.

This week, I saw the movie Julie & Julia. I came away from it with the desire to eat good French food and the notion that I should have a blog.

All of these came together and I've started this blog, keeping the name of my column as the title. We'll see how it goes.

One of my two large cats, Denali, a medium-haired tuxedo who flops out, is now demanding some attention. His sister, Borealis, is a short thick-haired tabby. More about them and their antics another time. My husband Nick Corsano is now watching the Oakland A's game. More about baseball later as well.

For now, I'm going to take a look at the game and play with the cats. Have a good weekend!


© 2009 Esther A. Heller

Friday, September 4, 2009

Thoughts on ... Romance

On Sept 4, 1971, my husband Nick and I were married at Harvard Chapel. Tonight we went to celebrate our anniversary at Bella Vista restaurant on Skyline Blvd in Woodside, California. We had a corner table, meaning windows on two sides, facing east. We watched the light and shadows and fog changed as the sun went down.

I may come back and elaborate later but for now I wanted to share the karma.

The woman (thirties maybe) at the next table and I made eye contact and smiled from time to time. They had arrived before us and were slightly ahead of us in service. While Nick & I were eating our entrees, our waiter came by. I said "are you checking up on us?" He said, "no them, he's proposing." And indeed the man had gone down on one knee and opened up a box with a, easily seen from our table, diamond ring. She clearly said yes. Smattering of applause around the room.

A man, closer to our age, from another table came over to them. He and his wife were celebrating their 20th anniversary and he had also proposed in that restaurant.

I went over to the now engaged couple and told them it was our 38th and this was all good karma and wished they were as happy as we are.

I'll be writing my introductory entry sometime in the next few days but I wanted to share this while it was fresh in my memory. On our ride home, Nick and I talked about how we had and hadn't changed over the years. We agreed at the core of ourselves we were still the same people and that's why we're still madly in love. Now, I think I'll go kiss my husband.