If one of the most impressive aspects of Tom Huth’s Forty Years Stoned is its clean and controlled use of chronological order (his narrative moves smoothly from past to present), then equally impressive is the daring, innovative use of reverse chronological order in Catherine Hiller’s Just Say Yes: A Marijuana Memoir.
No less impressive is the wide-ranging list of social issues, family tensions, academic strides, cultural convulsions, and varied coming-of-age episodes that Catherine Hiller deploys, all the while sharing anecdotes both startling and thoughtful.
Tom Huth qualifies as a pre-Boomer, who feels that he was just a little too old to partake of the 1960s with gusto. But Catherine Hiller? She brands herself as a dyed-in-the-denim, on-time Boomer who didn’t just hear about Woodstock in 1969; nor did she merely buy the album or see the film in 1970. Hiller was actually there.
What makes her memoir important is that her writing is switchblade sharp (don’t take my word for it, take John Updike’s verdict: “good, brave, and joyful writing” is how he lauded her). But even more important is that Hiller has something to say.
Just Say Yes deserves to be on the same shelf as Pete Hamill’s A Drinking Life or Jack London’s John Barleycorn; or Alcoholic Memoirs. And yet, here’s the cautionary note.
Unlike so many authors who have chronicled their lifetime of patterns with hard habits to break, Catherine Hiller does not, in the end, convert and become a 12-stepper or a sober zealot or an advocate for abandoning one’s love of weed.
Instead, while writing with the anecdotal zest of Pete Hamill and the narrative punch of Jack London combined, there emerges from this memoir a sense of awareness, contentment, relentless humor, and bruising honesty about the ups and downs of being a lifelong marijuana acolyte. For Hiller, no intervention is required.
Despite the hassles and occasional capers involving dealers, colleagues, traffic cops, annoyed family members, airport security types or irritating social prohibitions, Hiller’s biographical note at the back of the book assures us: “She has smoked marijuana almost every day for the past fifty years.”
And what does she have to say? Here’s a representative sample: “Some people like to run or bike when they’re stoned, but I don’t like to be physically active. Smoking makes me languorous and passive. That’s probably why I like weed so much. I tend to be a speedy person . . . pot calms and cocoons me.” Simple. Yet profound.
Or there is this insightful allusion to one of Edith Wharton’s memorable remarks.
Hiller writes: “ ‘ Life is always a tightrope or a featherbed,’ wrote Edith Wharton. ‘Give me the tightrope.’ But I like pot because it brings me down from the wire and onto a pillow. It’s great as a calming agent after an ordeal, such as a rough drive home, and it’s a fine way to start the weekend.”
Nonetheless, the author is no Pollyanna. Sprinkled throughout her memoir are journal entries that boldly admit to the fatigue caused by regular pot usage, and other drawbacks as well (red eyes, bad breath, and short-term memory concerns).
Contrarily, she also provides plentiful reminders of the endorsements given to marijuana from high-profile individuals, who sing its praises – a list of approving comments from luminaries in all fields (e.g., Paul McCartney, Barack Obama, et al.)
Just Say Yes also reads like a handbook for urban weed users, in particular, due to Hiller’s multiple and exquisitely detailed examples of the choreography required to buy pot safely. It’s a protocol not for the faint of heart. But until marijuana is made as legal and taxable as gin and tobacco (Colorado shows how), that’s the way it is.
Still, though, her sense of humor and a personal agenda of reliable procedures find her in great form, even after (or perhaps because of?) a half-century of inhaling.
She delightfully reminds us: “After I’ve smoked, if I want to conceal it, I have a six-step routine. I put eye drops into my flaming eyes and take an ibuprofen, which constricts the blood vessels and makes my eye-whites actually white. I wash my hands with soap and spray on perfume. I brush my teeth and swallow something, anything, such as some juice or a cookie. Then people who don’t smoke pot would probably be fooled. Of course, those who know me know I’m high because I smell of toothpaste and perfume – at some random time like 4:20 PM.”
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