The Adventures of Captain Dunsel

Stardate 2011.4

(Episode aired April 5, 2011)
Having received a request from Starfleet Command to voyage to the offices of a remote employment agency to follow up on previous online submissions of resume and personal data, our hero finds herself confronting a hostile life form, fellow voyagers, and a young account lieutenant with whom she must interpret the New Order.

A little background is called for. On March 8, 1968, the original Star Trek series aired an episode called “The Ultimate Computer,” in which a computer does a better job (at least temporarily) of running The U.S.S. Enterprise than Captain Kirk.
Captain Kirk is called “Dunsel” by a colleague and walks off the bridge fuming and hurt. “What in the blazes is Dunsel?” Bones demands. Spock explains, “Dunsel, Doctor, is a term used by midshipmen at Starfleet Academy. It refers to a part that serves no useful purpose.”

These last few months have been discouraging for me, confronting, as I am, the reality that within a 5-month period my three biggest and long-running freelance writing/editing jobs evaporated, one after the other. The first, and perhaps worst, blow was the demise of the women’s health magazine I’d been the managing editor of for the last 5 years. It was not only my main source of income, it was also a source of pride, a well-regarded publication among the physicians who read it, and in many ways, a part of my identity. It wasn’t the first women’s health magazine I’d worked on, but like the others before it, it was my focus and I loved working on it. I worked with scores of interesting people all over the world, and had a great working relationship with several virtual colleagues. I’ve met many of the authors and board members at the association’s annual meeting, and made some friends among the colleagues I saw every year.

The death of this journal can be blamed on many things: steadily declining revenues resulting from a lack of advertising from pharmaceutical companies, especially after the reversal of fortunes for hormone replacement therapy; the movement of drug ads from doctors’ journals to magazines for consumers; changes in the journal’s leadership; and, of course, the big shadow cast by the Internet’s dominance over the antediluvian bound and printed page. I had other ongoing projects, but over the last year, several ceased to be viable or no longer could support freelance workers.

In the previous several years I’d weathered the end of a series of journals that I worked on. Even when publications remained afloat, several were purchased by new owners who brought with them a new crew that did not want to use freelancers who had previously worked on the publications. In one instance, I was told that all freelancers “left by the old ones” (another Star Trek allusion, my apologies) were being put on notice that if they wanted to continue with the publication, they had to agree to work within a new rubric: no more “scientific-y” articles, they were now going to be based on interviews with patients and would be more “human interest-y.” I’d done many interviews before and figured I could weather the storm. And I thought I passed the test: my first story was on the cover. My second story was on page 2. But after that, I never heard from them again; my calls went unanswered and emails unreturned. The editors I worked with had left the company. I had worked for this publication for more than 6 years, and had lunch with its editors in New York. I found out much later that every single staffer who had been with the publication prior to the installation of a new executive was gone within months.

There were other ominous signs of the way things were going. When someone did want to give you work, it was at 1980 prices. I say 1980 specifically because that was the year I got my first job out of the college. So I’ve come full circle. I’m making the same hourly amount I did when I was 22.

Another trend has also emerged. Experience and a long resume is no longer a plus. You may be set in your ways and not fun to work with. Also, you might require a living wage. And you might get on the phone to discuss something because it will take half the time of sending 10,000 emails back and forth that only deepen the confusion. I can’t escape the feeling that some of the young people now in positions of account managers and editors, who I’m now looking to for work, are uncomfortable with the idea that I could be their …mom.

So by the end of December, things had reached a new low. I had hardly any work. Phone calls placed to former colleagues who once gave me work ended the same way. One friend with whom I’ve worked for 15 years on different projects in a variety of different companies said, “Do you want the full-length nauseating version or the shorter nauseating version?” The short version was bad enough. Not only did the long project I was to work on fall through, the editor had also essentially lost her job, was half-time now, and was doing the little available work herself, so there was no need for freelancers.

I got a call in late March from another underemployed freelancer, who suggested that I join LinkedIn. She said she’d gotten one job out of it because a colleague from years ago saw her there and called her. So I did join LinkedIn, but the very first day three of my new connections wrote to tell me they were out of work, too; not too good for networking, but we did have fun talking again.

A couple of weeks ago I finished up a writing project, the last thing that would be contributing to my bank account for some time to come, and a few days after I sent it in, I got some really nice feedback from the client, very complimentary and very hopeful about future work. It was a much-needed boost. I was telling my husband that the article was well received and that it might turn into more. “That’s great!” he said. “I think you were feeling like Captain Dunsel.”

A disclaimer: I am not one of those Trekkies who goes to conventions and collects Captain Kirk dolls or wears Spock ears. But I did and do still love the original Star Trek series. I love the campy, over-the-top, preachy themes and the egalitarian and world-oriented depiction of the future –as it was imagined in 1968. In 1968, I was 10 years old, and my parents only let me watch 30 minutes of TV on certain nights. But if my brother and I watched the same 1-hour show, we could pool our time. Besides, my parents liked Star Trek, too. My brother and I looked forward to the night the show was on, enjoying all the famously low-budget aliens and the hokey transporter beam. (Well, maybe my brother was waiting for Yeoman Rand and her micro-mini skirts, but I was waiting for the Captain and Spock.) But I forgot who Captain Dunsel was! My husband feigned shock and was smug about his superior knowledge of Star Trek. He reminded me about the episode with the M5 computer, and it all came back to me.

So, in short, Yes, I have been feeling like Captain Dunsel!

The week before the Captain Dunsel epiphany, I registered with a temp agency on the advice of another of my unemployed publishing friends. I did most of the registration online and attached my resume and waited to see what happened. I got a call asking me to come in for an interview. That’s where this blog began.

Stardate 2011.4
(Episode aired April 5, 2011)
Having received a request from Starfleet Command to voyage to the offices of a remote employment agency to follow up on previous online submissions of resume and personal data, our hero finds herself confronting a hostile life form, fellow voyagers, and a young account lieutenant with whom she must interpret the New Order.

Sitting in the waiting room where the hostile life form (receptionist) did a great job of further deflating any self-esteem remaining among the group of hopeful job candidates, I had a chance to do some self-assessment of my externals. I came up short: hair (no style), nails (not painted), brows (not shaped), clothes (old), age (not young). The young woman who interviewed me was very nice, upbeat, and high energy, but I was out of practice:
• Was I a writer or an editor? (I was pressed to pick.)
• Have I written email blasts? Web banners?
I guess I survived, because she’s given me a good lead and some work has resulted from it. But I felt very Dunselish—only I was still a week away from realizing that it was Dunsel I was channeling. Driving home, I took a detour for a cappuccino at my favorite coffee shop. I needed fortitude. It is a good place to go when you need to see a middle-aged, style-challenged person or two.
When I got home, I checked my email. There was an email from MediaBistro, which sends job listings in media. They also advertise their online seminars and courses. This one caught my eye:

“Reinventing Print Content for the Web: This class …will help you stay current with demanding online audiences. You’ll learn how to WEBIFY magazine articles…[the] instructor was a ‘rich media ninja’ [in a previous company]…”

And here’s the important part:
“This course is an eye-opener for anyone who has been preserved in the amber of the print world.”

Oh, wow, that spoke to me! I AM THAT PERSON! I emailed a few of my friends to let them know I had just found out what my problem is, or how the world saw my kind.
A relic from the Jurassic, preserved in amber, like an unfortunate trapped fly of millennia past. “Is the young stuff so much better than print amber?” asked my friend Bob. “Is a rich narrative no longer the ticket?”
I can’t answer that. Maybe down the road, at a future stardate. In a different installment of The Adventures of Captain Dunsel.

“Ultimate Computer” on Wikipedia

2 thoughts on “The Adventures of Captain Dunsel

  1. it is depressing for me to see that those who have been traditionally in charge of giving us a rational account of all the information out there are becoming a rare species. It doesn’t make sense, we are in the “information age”, and it would appear with the abundance of information out there, we should be more in need of editors and journalists. Instead, the NY times and other great print journals are on the edge of bankruptcy. Who is left to sift through the information? Even scientists are considered suspect. Are we left to rely on FOX news and Donald Trump to tell us what we should think? For the more left leaning of us, we are almost left to relying on Jon Stewart, who, while funny and smart, is not exactly a journalist or an editor. WE NEED THE GREAT EDITORS LIKE JACKIE SYROP IN THE WORLD!

    Mark Engel, MD
    Princeton, NJ

  2. Sad piece, beautifully written.

    Those who dwell on the mountain tops of
    capitalism are rolling down boulders on
    the children of the “greatest generation.”

    “Those who do not learn from history are
    forced to relive it.” Survival trumps progress.

    To the streets, to the barricades!

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