Life Lessons from a Morgue - John Forde

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    December 21, 2019 1:06 PM PST

    Sneak Preview: Four about four and a half hours, I worked in a morgue. Here’s what it taught me...


    December 3, 2019

    Life Lessons From a Morgue

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    “Life’s a garden... dig it.”

    - Joe Dirt

    For about four and a half hours, I worked in a morgue. 

    Well, technically, it was in the office of the morgue, located in the basement of the Johns Hopkins Hospital. 

    The “stiffs,” as I would later be reminded, were just down the hall. 

    Hence, the pervasive stench of formaldehyde.

    The office to which I was assigned had no windows. On the wall were a few half-hearted, motel-worthy prints of cheap paintings, perhaps a “hang in there” cat poster, and a calendar. 

    And a clock that buzzed electrically with the seemingly low roar of the passing hours.

    Green filing cabinets lined the back wall. Otherwise, the room had only two desks for furniture. And each had a computer terminal, stacks of file folders, and a box full of micro-cassettes.

    At the time, I was fresh out of college. There was a recession on and jobs were scarce. My most marketable skill was that I could type 90 wpm. Until something better came along, I worked for a temp agency.

    “It’s real easy,” said the 60-ish woman who occupied the other desk. “All you have to do is pop one of these tapes into the transcription machine and fill in the details on your computer. There’s a form and everything.”

    How hard could it be?

    The tape machine had foot pedals, so you could pause and rewind while typing. After sorting that out, I got to work. 

    “The patient,” said a voice on the first tape, “was a 91-year-old white female...” This was followed by a wet, squelching noise. He continued, “In the upper left quadrant of her abdomen, there’s an apparent carcinoma...”

    He was carving up a cadaver in real-time. 

    On tape after tape, he continued his casual tour of mortal horrors. Pausing, I guessed, to take sips of coffee or bites of a bologna sandwich.

    “Um... so have you been doing this job long?” I asked my cellmate.

    “Is it fascinating?” she beamed back with almost surreal enthusiasm, “I’ve been working here for almost 18 years and I still learn something new almost every day. I love it!”

    She gushed on until I told her I had to return to the surface for some lunch and, if I had to be honest, some air.

    “Oh, you should stop by the autopsy room on your way out. It’s right by the elevators.”

    I didn’t though.

    Instead, I found a payphone, called the temp agency, and told them I’d need to move on. It was the only assignment I’d ever quit. “Death in the family,” I explained. “It’s just too much.” 

    I told this story over Thanksgiving, and Jason, my sister’s brother-in-law, challenged me to find a reason to write it up for this e-letter. 

    “There’s got to be a lesson in there,” he said.

    Hmm, and so there might be. After all, I think of the experience often, all these years later. 

    For one, it’s where I first learned how to use a transcription machine. To this day, I use a software alternative to transcribe meeting notes.

    It was also a crash course in what kills ya, a reason for reflection on life, and all that. Some of which would come in handy years later when I would dabble in writing health copy.

    But what stuck with me was the woman who shared the office. Nothing makes the hours — or years — fly by like doing something you love. 

    And what sustained her passion? Relentless curiosity. She was still learning something new. Every. Single. Day.

    I may not have been cut out (no pun intended) for morgue work, but I think of her excitement sometimes when I dive into a new writing topic.

    You have to be curious to write well.

    All these years later, I had to wonder, what else have I picked up from the many odd jobs I’ve held? 

    Turns out, maybe a lot. 

    For instance, in the summer after grade school, I cut lawns. Mundane, yes. But I liked having the time to think. 

    I also cleaned offices on Saturday’s for a local architect. I was alone in the office, working unsupervised.

    But in both jobs, I learned to love the idea that someone later would reap the benefits of work well done.

    Other summers, I worked the sales floor and stock room of a hardware store, where I learned to problem-solve for customers. 

    During college years, my brother and I also ran our own house painting business, where I learned not just how to slap on paint, but how to prep and plan, write up estimates, budget supplies, and schmooze customers. 

    I also discovered that people will pay you a lot of money to do things they either can’t or won’t do for themselves. 

    Not long after my day in the morgue, I parlayed my temping skills into a job as a designer for a book publisher. I still use those skills today, too, working with production teams on copy projects.

    Point being, I get asked – often by you guys – how long it takes to learn what we do. And the truth is, I can’t say. Six months? A lifetime?

    We’re each an amalgam of experiences.

    Somewhere in all of that, around the time that I was trying to figure out what I would do with my life, my father gave me some advice.

    “John,” he said, “In the end, it doesn’t matter what you decide to do right now. If you want to be a doorman, you can be a doorman. Just be the best damn doorman you can.” 

    Doing something is better than paralyzing yourself with choices, he said. And everything has something to teach you if you look hard enough. 

    That also stuck with me and has helped steer a lot of my career choices since. 

    For instance, I get asked how I got started in copywriting. Who did I know, what skills did I bring, what books did I read, or what courses did I take? 

    The truth is, I took a shot in the dark. 

    It was still back in those recessionary times and I’d heard there was a publishing conference in town. So I put on an ugly brown suit, walked into the event like I belonged there, and went table to table asking questions.

    One of those conversations led to a contact address. Some pestering led a $15/day internship, which turned into a hired editorial job, which put me in the right spot to get hired as that company’s first copywriter-in-training.

    Nearly 30 years later, that company – Agora – is my biggest freelance client. They now have hundreds of copywriters and nine figures in annual revenue. Plus, lots of new and interesting projects. I still learn something new every day. 

    My point is, I couldn’t perfectly retrace my steps. Nor could I pretend they were calculated.

    What got me here were Lots of wrong turns, a few right ones, some luck... and just stepping up and getting started... or plowing through when things took unexpected turns, as they still often do.

    What I do know, though, is that if you keep on trying stuff... and learning... somehow, it all seems to work itself out.

    Bottom line, take your shot. 

    Don’t overthink it, just get started. 

    You might fall flat on your face. But you might not. You never, ever know.


    Oh, and...
    Honor: All the above is © 2019 by John Forde.
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