In conjunction with my July 5th radio interview with author and Westchester resident Catherine Hiller, author of seven adult works and two children’s books, I read four of the adult works:
“An Old Friend From High School” – her first novel (1978) deals with a heterosexual married woman dealing with a strong attraction to a girlfriend from high school.
“Skin: Sensual Tales” — A collection of erotic short stories.
“The Adventures of Sid Sawyer” – A retelling of the Tom Sawyer story from the vantage point of his younger and highly intelligent brother, Sid.
Hiller’s earlier books received praise from such notables as John Updike and Phillip Lopate and I was extremely impressed with the breath of her work, as well as the quality. I personally find short story writing to be the most difficult form of writing (my published writing includes a non-fiction book, poetry, a novella, and newspaper and magazines pieces – but not short stories). With short stories, the writer must develop characterization, set a stage, develop a plot, and tell a story all in a writing style strong enough to hold the reader’s attention. This is something that a novelist may take from 150 pages to 500 pages (I just read Greg Iles’ “Natchez Burning” – and he held my interest for 862 pages; an incredible accomplishment). A short story writer must do it all in a few short pages. Some of the most well known short story writers such as “O’Henry” (William Sidney Porter) and J. D. Salinger were able to build characters and locations that were known to readers and moved across stories, making it somewhat easier for the writer to just “tell the tale.” In Skin’s case, every story deals with unique characters and situations, requiring Hiller to be at “the top of her game” for each — and she is.
The uniqueness of the stories is also reflected in the three other books mentioned above. The settings, background of the characters, language, sexual tension, and location could not be more different between An Old Friend From High School and The Adventures of Sid Sawyer (2013). Yet, both, in my judgement, work very well and are worth the attention of readers.
Just Say Yes is brave for a number of reasons. Hiller lays bare her story of two marriages, her disappointment that her critically acclaimed writing has not brought the consumer success for which she hoped, and, of course, the details of her over 50 years of steady marijuana use. It is bold because she steps forward and, fairly brazenly, takes on what she sees as the nonsensical rules against marijuana use, at some risk to herself.
She does not, however, try to force marijuana use on the reader – she only wants those who wish to use it to be as free as those who wish to use alcohol – the use of which, she points out, is far more dangerous to most people.
Hiller’s use of marijuana did not prevent her from completing a PhD from Brown University in English, completing the books mentioned as well as short stories published in various magazines, raising three sons (she did not smoke during pregnancies), making a living for years as a seller of advertising in medical journals, and maintaining an active editing service for other writers.
She presents her story in an interesting fashion, moving from the present backward in time to the age of 17, when she first smoked “pot.” Once I became used to the juxtaposition in time, I found the story telling both innovative and effective.
Early in the book, she details how the drug’s use affects her writing process – she finds it useful “for inspiration and writing. After half a joint, I feel a tingling in my elbows and a warm general confidence. Happiness suffuses my brain, and I become more playful and inventive. It’s the perfect time to plan a project, because ideas come more quickly. It’s also a good time to actually write, because, I usually feel so good I don’t notice the demons of doubt. Being high eases me into writing; after a while, I’m no longer stoned, but the writing momentum continues. I’m in flow.
“I also like being high for the final read-through, of either my own fiction or pieces that I edit for others. I honestly feel I owe it to my clients to do the final reading after smoking, for then I often see subtle infelicities of meaning or rhythm that I’ve missed before, and I correct them on the spot. I do not usually check again when I’m straight, as I’m confident about my fine-tuning decisions when stoned. I give my clients a perk they know nothing about: a high level of attention.”
Hiller also explains early about some of the other ways that marijuana benefits her – “Of course, I don’t smoke just for writing and editing. Basically, weed is a general pleasure drug for me, a mild, reliable way to get happy, Most things I enjoy I enjoy even more when I’m high, especially if they don’t require energy. So relaxing outdoors is especially good for me after smoking, I like being baked when I lie on the beach, being stoned when I stroll in a drizzle and being high when I walk in the sun upon new fallen snow.
Kayaking at sunset is reliably wonderful, but marijuana brings it to aesthetic bliss. I paddle mainly in the calm harbor near my house, slowly at the end of the day. Sometimes other boaters ask, ‘Are you as happy as you look?’ and I always nod yes. Paddling like this is more meditation than sport. When people ask if kayaking is difficult, I sometimes say ‘The hardest part is lighting the joint in the wind.’”
For all the positives Hiller finds from marijuana use, she doesn’t sugar coat downsides of its use, devoting a whole chapter to them. Some of the ones she points out follow:
“Pot makes me sleepy and lethargic, especially two hours after smoking.”
“Pot also takes its toll upon ones personal charms. It makes the eyes red, and it may cause wrinkles.”
“Marijuana famously makes one hungry and makes great food taste even better. This is advantageous if one is too thin or in chemotherapy, but for the rest of us … not so much.”
“It’s pretty clear from both scientific studies and personal experience that pot impairs short term memory and learning.”
Hiller then examines an issue that plagues many about a variety of “pleasures” (alcohol, gambling, Internet use, etc.) – addiction. She writes “If I continue smoking while acknowledging that pot saps my energy and makes my eyes red and my breath bad and impairs short term memory – if I go on smoking every day despite these things, perhaps it’s not a habit but an addiction.” She then directs the reader to a government page on addiction – www.easyread.drugabuse.gov — and although she answers “yes” to a number of questions, explains why she does not feel she is addicted, writing that Narcotics Anonymous frames the question of addiction in the following context — “Very simply, an addict is a person whose life is controlled by drugs,” and then responding to the definition – “I always have grass on hand and I use it regularly, but my life is not controlled by pot. I have food on hand and I eat three times a day, but my life is not controlled by food.”
Elsewhere in the chapter, she asks the question – “Am I in denial myself?” The reader may or may not form a judgment on this question from reading this chapter.
Finally, she points out two other drawbacks to the use of pot – the cost and the fact that it is illegal in New York State. Her costs run about a hundred dollars ($100) a month and, while she’s not overly concerned about the illegality, she admits that it causes a little paranoia – “In New York State, possession of less than an ounce of pot results in just a $100 fine, but the penalty for smoking in public can be three months in jail. What if that person across the alley in the cook’s apron is really a cop?” It should be noted that she does not say what town or city that she lives in within Westchester so as not to alert the local law enforcement (although, that by writing about “the calm harbor near my house”, we know that she is on one of the two Westchester coasts).
Just Say Yes is a very good and quick read (it’s only 178 pages). Hiller tells her story without attempting to inflict her beliefs or life style on the reader. She does make a strong case for decriminalization but I admit that, in my case, she may be “just preaching to the choir.” Although I grew up in the “pre-pot age” (it became popular with the younger brothers of my friends) and have never been a user, I have long believed that the criminal penalties for both marijuana use and prostitution should be lifted and both should come under health regulation and be subject to taxation. Unfortunately, statements like this usually bring the rejoinder that I’m advocating the use of pot and going to prostitutes. The fact is that I’m doing neither – I just want to get crime and health concerns out of the picture, increase tax revenues, and let others do as they wish.
Although I initially read the book due to my impending radio interview of Hiller, I am glad that I did and know that I would have enjoyed it had I read it simply because I saw it in my local Barnes and Noble. The author is not heavy-handed in explaining her case for using marijuana and she writes well (as in shown in the breadth of her other writing). The book should not be dismissed solely as a puff piece for pot use and I recommend it to smokers and non-smokers alike.
John F. McMullen is a writer, poet, college professor and radio host. Links to other writings, Podcasts, & Radio Broadcasts at his web home, www.johnmac13.com, his books are available on Amazon (bit.ly/johnmac), he may be found on Facebook, LinkedIn & Skype as johnmac13 and he blogs at http://open.salon.com/blog/johnmac13. Comments and questions are welcome and can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org He is also a member of ACM, American Academy of Poets, ACLU, and Freelancers Union