Faster, better, bigger, more

Getting off the runaway train during quarantine

by James Kaelan and Jeanne Muñoz

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“I’m trying to do at least one dialogue per week,” I wrote to Jeanne Muñoz. “Mainly with friends? If there’s a topic you’d like to discuss we could do it by text and I could make it one of the posts!”

“Awesome!” she wrote back.

Jeanne and I have been friends since the end of 8th grade. She was the student body president of Placer Elementary — where she earned a 4.0. I was president of Franklin Elementary — where I was nearly expelled for bringing tequila to a school dance. We both gave commencement speeches at graduation. She wore a fancy dress. I wore a polyester suit I’d pieced together at a thrift store. Constitutionally, it appeared from the outside back then, we were opposites. She followed rules. I broke them. She did four years of student government at Del Oro High School. I got suspended for drinking. (A pattern was clearly emerging; I’m happy to say I’ve been sober, now, almost 16 years 😊)

But we both loved Bob Dylan. We loved the American West, and read John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy religiously. Jeanne’s dad, Dwight, told appalling jokes that we both found so vile and funny we’d laugh until we were lightheaded. And even back in high school — before George W. Bush, 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Great Recession, Trump, COVID-19 — we were both vaguely aware of a systemic catastrophe, fueled by inequality and greed, looming on the smoggy horizon.

I eventually moved to Boston to study writing. Jeanne went to Minnesota for law school. She returned to Sacramento. I decamped for Los Angeles. I gave a speech at her wedding. She read a poem at mine. But for a good part of a decade, we only really spoke once or twice a year. I didn’t meet her twin daughters until they were already walking.

But in that time, both our families were besieged by cancer. She lost her eight-year-old cousin to a brain tumor, and then her father, Dwight, to liver cancer. In the span of the last five years, my mom got diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. My dad had his prostate cut out. So did my uncle. My aunt had a double mastectomy. And my other uncle died of a malignant carcinoma that crawled into his spinal cord.

A little over a year ago, while I was visiting my parents, Jeanne and I got lunch. It was the first time we’d sat, just the two of us, and talked for hours. But despite hardly seeing each other in a decade, we realized we’d been struggling with the same thoughts. The planet had cancer. The malignant cells had metastasized, the symptoms were increasingly undeniable — and we still weren’t treating it.

A year later — with coronavirus cases eclipsing 500,000 in the U.S., with one in 10 Americans losing their jobs to the virus, and with black, brown, and poor people disproportionately dying of COVID-19 —Jeanne and I picked up the conversation again. Were we on the precipice, finally, of a collective awakening? Or would we find a way to go back to “normal” again?

“How should we start?” I asked Jeanne. “The criminal justice system?”

“We cold talk trees or law or climate or chronic disease and food supply,” Jeanne said. “But if we talk about law, I’d like to make the connection between capitalism and law enforcement. There seems to be a willful, inhumane blindness in the courts — in the name of efficiency and productivity. I had someone training me recently call some criminal defense work ‘Speed Boat’ law. Fast and furious. Gotta get the case done, convict someone. On to the next victim.”

“You got your degree,” I said, “passed the bar, and then abandoned the law more or less. I know some of the answer, but why did you decide to return, now? How does your new job fit into all of this?”

“I’m not entirely sure why I started thinking about coming back,” said Jeanne. “I had a couple of friends who would get legal advice from me, casually, about workplace stuff. Mostly employment law. One started to ask me more questions about business law, international business transactions, and things like that. It got this part of me going that had been dormant for a long time, and I got really excited and interested. Then I just happened to mention to Erica” — a mutual friend of ours I’ve known since kindergarten — “about needing a job, and she opened this door into DNA defense work. I didn’t even know what I was walking into, but it just seems like divine intervention that it landed in my lap. I’ve always had a heart for social justice work. So here we go! Who knows where it’ll end up.

“For ages I’ve used this really old, tired story line that ‘I never went to law school to become a lawyer.’ I’m not sure where that framing started or why, but I carried it with me. There was definitely some privilege guilt in there — feeling like I had to use my privilege to be of service, and if I made any money at it, it would be a shameful thing.”

“I struggle with the same thing,” I said. “I’m paralyzed by the idea of seeking money. It makes me a good pre-postcapitalist. It drives Blessing” — my wife, who’ll show up next week — “insane!

“Also,” I added, “there are plenty of privileged people who went to law school and then went and defended, you know, Dow. So don’t beat yourself up because you didn’t want to be a corporate lawyer.

“True that,” said Jeanne. “No corporate law for me.”

“You had the privilege,” I said, “not to be a corporate lawyer, I suppose. But I’d say you made an active choice not to fuck shit up while you were ‘finding yourself.’”

“Lol perhaps,” said Jeanne. “I’ll take that.”

“So tell me about your new focus on DNA defense,” I said. “Where does it fit in the superstructure of the criminal justice system?”

“Girls woke up from nap,” said Jeanne. “Packed up in Loomis and heading back to Sac. I’ll answer when I get a moment to write thoughtfully. This is fun!”

Two days later Jeanne texted a short essay.

“I’m currently being trained to support the Sacramento County Conflict Criminal Defense Office with DNA counsel,” she began, “where I will serve on behalf of the defense, ensuring that the DNA evidence submitted in court meets the constitutional thresholds for due process.

“Many of the attorneys practicing in this field have a desire to contribute to the criminal justice system in some capacity. Some are there to ‘get the bad guys,’ some are there to be stars in the courtroom, some are there because of family legal defense lineages, some are there because life circumstances placed them in or around the criminal justice system at an early age and they want to support defendants seeking justice.

“As I look at the characters involved in the system, it reminds me why I actually got a legal education and became a licensed attorney. Studying cultural anthropology as an undergrad, I was fascinated with the way that societies were able to govern themselves and maintain relative peace. With the use of religion, moral codes that became written laws, property, currency — humans were able to create livable societies: villages, towns, cities, kingdoms. But we haven’t evolved much as a species beyond our primitive desires. And it always seems to me that, because of greed (which is a cousin of self-preservation), we’re on the precipice of disaster. If stepping on a few people lets you climb a little higher in the social order, people are always going to get crushed.

“Well, fast forward to today, and we have a legal system, a criminal justice system, that is incredibly racist and heavily weighted against those in the most impoverished and vulnerable living situations. The inequities that are necessary for a global capitalistic system — the owners with a lot, the workers with very little — are especially visible in our prisons. We’ve created a criminal justice system, a prison industrial complex, that operates much like an assembly line: manufacturing prisoners to fill beds. Not really an exaggeration.

“There is no consideration of the personal human cost. And we’re falsely imprisoning entire sections of our society. The brown, black, and the poor. Kept subordinate and desperate and willing to do the work that nobody else will do. Modern day slavery. To say nothing of private prisons — which aren’t even trying to conceal their aim. Private prisons exist to make money. Bias, exploitation, not a possibility. A guarantee.

“Our medical system is hardly better, but that’s a topic for another day 😤.”

“What’s happening now that the courts are effectively shut down?” I asked.

“The courts here are operating through Zoom as of April 1,” said Jeanne. “But they plan on opening up again at the beginning of May. I can’t imagine how crowded it’s getting in there.”

“I know you’re new to the criminal justice side of the law,” I wrote, “but are there ways that COVID-19 could make, temporarily, the system more just? Have you been following news about non-violent prisoners being released?”

“That’s been happening for the past few weeks,” said Jeanne. “The arraignments were really formulaic. If they could get released, they did get released. I wouldn’t say it was more just. It was necessary. Jails and prisons are vectors for the disease. A lot more needs to be done.

“But I’m interested to see what comes of this. Do we really need to hold all these drug offenders and homeless people in custody? Where else do they go?? Does it serve as a deterrent? Or is it just a temporary stay before the next ‘offense’? There are so many layers!”

A couple days later we picked up the conversation.

“Under quarantine,” I wrote, “I find I’m constantly having small (or sometimes large) clarifying revelations about economic and cultural ideas I’ve been pondering for a long time in a purely theoretical realm. What’s your biggest insight of the week? Or the month? Could be as a lawyer. Could be as a mother. Could be as an anthropologist. Or none of the above!”

“One of my insights,” said Jeanne, “has come from scaling back my busy working schedule and reëntering this role as a full-time mom again. I spent the first 18 months of my girls’ lives being with them pretty much all day, every day. But when I started this new job, I got back on the runaway train. We have no control over the pace, or where we’re going. We’re just along for the ride. Unconscious.

“My time in quarantine has validated some of the things I’ve felt as truth for a long time: that living can be slow and simple. We don’t actually need very much. We’ve been duped into believing the story of faster, better, bigger, more — and it’s driving us all crazy. It’s making us all sick. This is really how I’ve felt for years, since my dad died, and in some ways its made me a bit of an outcast? But I feel like people are really desirous of an excuse to do less, to move more slowly. Permission to downshift. A sense of innate value, of belonging to a community: those can be salves for the soul when we have time to apply them.”

“The peace of doing less,” I said. “COVID-19 is a brutal price to pay for that revelation. One we’d never have chosen. But since we’re paying it, we must learn from it.”

“Yes,” said Jeanne. “100%.”

“And what’s a change you’ve made,” I asked, “that you want to carry through after/if the nightmare ends?”

“I want to be outside more,” she said. “In nature, around nature, with more appreciation for it. My girls love being outside, going on adventures. I need to feed off of that more. We all do.”

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