An Example of Bad Taste, and Worse

Neal Lemery

Published in the Tillamook County Pioneer 1/15/2020


An Example of Bad Taste, And Worse


I quickly went from shock to a strong sense of revulsion and disgust the other day, as I was checking up on the latest local news.

It was a story of tragedy and grief.  A young mother was killed in a traffic crash, with her baby rushed to the hospital.  The text of the story, taken from the Sheriff’s press release, told me all I needed (and wanted) to know. The story was a traumatic reminder of the fragility of human life and the senseless disaster of traffic crashes.

What left me numb and sickened, and then outraged, was the accompanying color photo of the car, horrific in every detail, posted by a local newspaper.  The photo didn’t add to the story, and instead it fueled my emotions and smacked of tabloid journalism and poor taste.

I thought of the victim’s family and friends, and of all those impacted by the tragedy, and how seeing that photo would amplify their grief. And, to what purpose was the photo published?

When I was a prosecutor in the criminal justice system, I reviewed countless photos of tragedy. I sometimes used them to assist experts determine causation, and in court as evidence for the judge or jury to consider in making their findings. In deciding on whether to use a particular photo, I always asked myself three questions: is it true, is it kind, and is it necessary?

If the photo was the only way to convey an important fact, I still needed to decide if the real motive to submit it into evidence was to simply be dramatic, or appeal to lurid or emotional sensationalism.  Photos that didn’t meet those standards were left in the case file.

Like prosecutors, journalists also have professional standards of ethics.

A position paper on reporting stories of grief and tragedy by the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), takes on these questions:

“Stories involving grief and victims goes to the heart of one of the tenets of the SPJ Code of Ethics: minimize harm.

“The Code recognizes the responsibility to … show compassion…be sensitive… ,. When using photographs (be sensitive) to those affected by tragedy or grief.

“(A)void pandering to lurid curiosity.  … media will receive higher marks if they present their stories in responsible fashion without resorting to sensationalism in words or photos.” (SPJ Ethics Committee Position Papers: Reporting on Grief, Tragedy and Victims)

Like all professions, journalists have an ethical responsibility to conduct their work without subjecting others to ridicule or lurid sensationalism. That responsibility, in this instance, is sorely lacking and leads to an unhealthier, less loving and compassionate community.

As a community, we can do better.

Smoke Break


–by Neal Lemery


His hands shook as he rummaged through a plastic grocery sack, pulling out a plastic pre-roll tube. It still had its faded label from the marijuana store down the street.  The shakings nearly caused him to drop the tube, but he managed to snap open the plastic lid. He tapped a little something into his mouth and swallowed.

He’d laid his lit cigarette on the black metal patio table, and set down the plastic tube, pushing the lid shut with yellowed fingertips.  The rest of the sack’s contents were soon strewn across the table: another pre-roll tube, three cigarette lighters, a half empty pack of rolling papers, an open pack of cigarettes, and a pocket knife with an open, half broken off blade.

A worn cardboard box sign with crude letters spelling out “Hungry” also decorated the table.  He had been holding it up on a street corner a mile away not an hour ago, looking gaunt, wet, and needy.  The hood of his coat had shadowed his face from passersby and the drivers waiting at the light.

His body twitched occasionally, his head bouncing back and forth, as he muttered to himself and occasionally spoke loudly in an indecipherable squawk, into the wind.

The sign was catching some of the raindrops  blowing in from the approaching storm, and he scooted the table and himself further under the eaves, until the chair banged against the window.

His friend showed up a few minutes later, also dressed in a black, heavy cotton raincoat and jeans, with equally sunken eyes and a week’s worth of beard across his face. His fist was curled around a crisp new paper sack, its shape formed by the scrunching of the sack against a bottle recently purchased at the nearby liquor store two blocks away.  He grinned as he arrived, raising the bag and his fist in triumph. He mumbled a few words to the first guy, who took another taste of whatever was in the tube, and handed it to the second guy.

It was their only conversation here on the street.

The second guy took a long drag on his cigarette, white smoke briefly covering his face, before the wind cleared the smoke away.  He set the half-smoked cigarette on the table. A fresh breath of wind rolled it off and down to the sidewalk, where it was promptly snuffed out by the wet. Grabbing the tube, he opened it with an experienced flick of a thumb, and tapped some of the contents onto his tongue.

The sidewalk and side street were otherwise deserted, as rain began to fall in bursts. The wind gusted, picking up speed, scattering fallen leaves this last part of November. An empty, sodden Starbucks cup rolled towards the adjoining street, soon to meet its fate in the steady stream of log trucks and pickups, and tires splashing in the gutters.

They each took a couple more hits from the pre-roll tube, until the contents were depleted.  The second man cursed as he discovered his sodden cigarette on the ground, and quickly lit another one from the open pack on the table, flicking a flame out of one of the three lighters on the table.

The first man, staring at his shoes, pulled heavily on the last of his cigarette, everything in jagged motion as yet another twitch overtook him. Taking in the last of the smoke the cigarette had to offer, he breathed out a sigh of pleasure.

The wind gusted stronger, moving the rain at a lower slant, now streaking the window under the café eave.  The two men were starting to get wet.  They wordlessly fought with the plastic grocery sack and the wind, finally getting all their items back into the sack, and stuffed it into the first man’s knapsack. They headed off towards the street. The second man clutched his sack full of liquor, his steps uncertain in the wind and rain.

The first man paused, wracked again by yet another twitch and shaking all over, his hands convulsing for a few more seconds.  Again, sounds came from his lips, harsh, angry, incoherent.

The other man looked back at his friend, his eyes gaunt, staring, unfocused. He silently turned and moved ahead, as the first man finally regained his balance and started moving again, trailing the other guy.

In a minute, the sidewalk was empty, the rain moving in for good, drenching the pavement and washing away the last traces of their visit to the table by the café.

Back and forth, give and take, getting a little high before the storm hit for good, before they opened the booze somewhere out of the storm.



I watched from my booth at the café, this snippet of their young lives playing out before my disbelieving eyes, leaving me to ignore my coffee cup and the poem I was trying to rewrite.

The waiter came to refill my cup, and looked out into the wet, windswept street, commenting about the coming storm.  No mention of the two men, the ingesting of the contents of the tube, the full bottle of booze in the brown sack, the occasional twitchings and outbursts, as if this episode of these young men’s world wasn’t really playing out by the front door of his café.

Invisible, or just part of the downtown scenery, I wasn’t sure which.  Maybe the scene was just too ordinary, too commonplace to merit comment.


The poem I was going to work on lay unattended, and my coffee had grown cold. Instead, I had become a part of their cigarette break, their moment on the street.  I had been held silenced, unnoticed on the other side of the glass, and the ritual with the contents of the plastic tube, as they passed it back and forth, emptying the contents into their mouths.  There were the manipulations of the smokers and their cigarettes, and the occasional twitches and tremors, the incoherencies of the man with the “Hungry” sign.

“Hungry”.  Still hungry, as the two men started their journey to the next place.  A place where, perhaps, the bottle would give them warmth and conversation, a way to pass the time until the storm blew through.

And, perhaps the stuff from the tube, the liquor, the smokes would somehow fill the bellies of their souls with what they needed in their lives, the stuff that couldn’t be found on the table by the café.

I went back to my coffee, and a bowl of soup, and my unfinished poem, behind the glass of that café window that was my own private window into their world, sheltered by the storm and the wind that blew through their lives.






Walking on Life’s Path

I don’t know it all. And, I never will.

But, in this journey of curiosity, inquiry, the anticipation of what may be around the corner, and the meeting of what I haven’t figured out yet, lies the excitement.

And, yes, I might even be wrong about what I think I know. I’m not perfect. I’m not a master of much of what goes on in the world, or what I think I know to figure out a problem. And, the more I work on the stuff that I think I’m pretty good at, even a master of, I keep finding out that there is more for me to learn, and even more problems and questions that come up, as I go about my tasks.

The learning curve still have a pretty good slope to it, keeping my journey as a healthy form of exercise, on all levels.

Often, being able to ask the question is often more important than thinking I have the answer. I usually don’t have the answer, at least the right answer. Even if the answer was right a while ago, it has a good chance of not being right now, anyway. And, “right” and “correct” are relative, anyway.

But, I have a lot of questions, and more than enough enigmas, quandaries, and paradoxes to keep me moving forward, looking for the answers. Somedays, I just discover I have more questions.

Simply having the questions is becoming increasingly comfortable. I’m full of questions. I keep finding more questions, and revising, rewriting the questions. Questions give me structure, and give me direction.

I’ve always needed direction. I’ve been around long enough that I can see the cycles, the patterns of life, and society, and being able to navigate through it al, with some sense of purpose and structure. I can get easily lost if I don’t have focus, and a path to try to follow.

“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are headed.” —Lao Tzu.

When I figure out I’m going in the wrong direction, I summon my courage, dust off my list of questions, and take a new path. I “work my hard” and change directions, heading on a new path. And, when I look back, I can see where I’ve stumbled, and where I’ve danced, and I usually figure out that my choices were good ones.

I’m loaded with questions, and I’m on my path, my meandering path. My job is to keep track of where I’m headed, and to not get so caught up in myself that I start thinking I know it all, that I have all the answers. If I’m curious and not afraid to look at the compass once in a while, life keeps on being an exciting, and rewarding adventure.

—Neal Lemery, 11/23/2013

Freedom Day: Getting Paroled and the Incoming Tide

On the beach, he found himself looking at the waves crashing onto the clean sand. Seagulls flew by and landed in a group, just above the incoming tide. The skies were clearing from yesterday’s storm, and the air was fresh, clean, and free.

He was alone, except for the waves, and the gulls, and me, a hundred yards away, watching, watching over him, this first day of freedom.

I saw him gulp the cool, salty air, and then, another gulp, until finally his chest relaxed and he let it all go, released.

Released. Let go from prison this morning, after six and a half years. He knew the exact number of days, and had been counting down each one of them for as long as I’d known him.

The gate swung behind us and clanged shut. A familiar sound to me, after all the visits here with him and other young men, but a new, and final sound for him. Other young men had brought all his belongings from six years behind bars, filling my car, readying us for his trip today to his new life, his new beginning.

We drove away and he could only say “Man, oh, man.”

I honked the horn at the empty road ahead, and offered a shouted “hooray”, and he laughed, finally.

He fell silent, after all the good byes and handshakes and hugs with all the other young men, and the prison staff. Bittersweet, after months of anticipation, almost afraid to go, and move on with his life, from the known and the routine, into new places, new routines, and a new, fresh life.

The waves kept crashing onto the beach, and he had to run back a bit, when a wave moved up farther, almost soaking his shoes. It was a good dance, turning into a bit of a jig, as he became a part of the incoming tide, a part of the morning at the beach, joining the world.

He’d sat down at our breakfast table, laughing at the big plate of eggs and bacon and sausage and the plate of biscuits fresh out of the oven, everything he’d ordered for this day. A real fork and a real knife, not the plastic of the last six and a half years.

I’d thought the event warranted breaking out my mother’s silverware, and candlesticks, and china. Placemats, and all his favorites cooked to order, served on a china platter, and strawberries in a dish.

I refilled his coffee, and waited on him, hand and foot. I thought he needed that, after all these years.

His birthday was tomorrow, and we only had this morning to spoil him. I’d baked him a cake, and I slipped back into the kitchen, ready for a party.

I slipped back into the dining room, with blazing candles, and we broke out into a rousing “Happy Birthday”.

He laughed and nearly cried, and gave a lusty blow out to the candles, as we applauded. I bet his wish was already granted: freedom.

He laughed again, the thought of birthday cake, and now, ice cream, for breakfast. He said his grandmother wouldn’t approve, but then, he laughed again, and said today was probably a good reason for an exception to the rule. We laughed at him being the rule breaker, the scofflaw, not even an hour into his parole.

The sky got lighter and he spotted the neighbor’s horse in the field, and the pink of the dawn. It was a new view, after all. Six and a half years in the same fenced compound, and now everything was new.

He had a second piece of cake, and a bit more ice cream, and then opened up his card, and his presents. Wonder sparkled in his eye, sitting here, in our house, and not where we’d always visited, behind that gate, that gate that clanged for him today, for the last time. It was all new, and it was all delicious, sweet.

It was all about him today, all about getting out and making a fresh start, and moving on with his life.

Soon, we’d be in the car, and driving south, a big day. A lot of miles to cover, and a lot of time to catch up on.

First the beach, and then, along a bay, and then a river, and through the forest, then farmers’ fields, and a city. He stared out the window, not saying much at times, and on we went.

He asked me about the trees, what they were called, and what about the salmon in the river, and what kind of logs were on that log truck.

We came to a place where we could go one way, or the other. Both roads led to where we were going, so it didn’t matter, and he told me which way to go. He chuckled then, at the choosing of which way to go, which road looked better. He’s made a decision; it was not a big deal, but then, maybe it was.

In the city, we met up with his good friend, a guy who had gotten out of the same place a week earlier, and was doing fine. He’d settled into his new home, a halfway house. He had a seven p.m. curfew, and laughed when others there thought that was too confining. In a month, he could be out until eleven, more freedom than he’d ever thought could be.

I took the two young men to a steak house, so they could eat their fill of meat. They’d both been craving barbeque, and big, greasy ribs, for quite a while, and ordered the big plates of beef, and chicken, and a mound of fries. Menus and ordering and making decisions on all the food was new to them, and when the attractive waitress joked around with them, they didn’t quite know what to do, at least for a minute.

All too soon, the big plates were clean, and bellies were full, and smiles were seen all around.

We said good bye to the young man we’d picked up, and headed off, heading to where home was six and a half years ago. We laughed about lunch and all that he could eat, and the extra slice of birthday cake I’d packed for him before we left my house.

He got quiet then, when the freeway sign told us how many miles it was to home. All this freedom was getting to him, finally, getting right into his heart.

Off to the side of the freeway, there was a beautiful field, shining in the sun with that first bright green that comes with the two or three springlike days of February. Those days are always a tease, making us think spring is here, but it isn’t.

The green was real, though, and worthy of mention.

So were the sheep, grazing on the grass. An entire flock of ewes, and their newborn lambs. The woolly babies were running and jumping, celebrating the newness of their lives and sunshine and green grass and promise of spring.

“I’m free,” he whispered then. “I’m finally free.”

Fresh tears flowed then, from all the eyes in the car, and we didn’t speak for quite a while, caught up in that moment.

We were both free, that day, even if the promised spring was not yet here. There was freedom in the air, in the rush of the incoming tide, in the color of the sky at dawn, in the light on his face from all the birthday candles, and the dance of the lambs on the fresh green grass of a new spring.

Neal Lemery 2/26/2013