Antioch Voices: Jasper Nighthawk

8 Billion Eggs

1.   Friday night we hire a sitter and go to the Hollywood Bowl to hear Sarah McLachlan play through her 30-year-old album Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. After the opener we sit for a while and talk, then my partner decides she should pee and I decide I’ll come with and get an ice cream. We scooch past the other folks in our row. Halfway to the aisle, the canned filler music fades down, the audience lights dim, and the stage lights come up. The show is starting. We look at each other and shrug. Always better to pee, even if it means missing the first song or two.

I get chocolate soft serve in a waffle cone. A giant serving. $8 of pillowy, rich ice cream that must be eaten faster than it can melt.

2.   My grandma Mimi taught me to eat my first ice cream cone on a summer afternoon at the San Diego Zoo. I was maybe three. She showed me how to keep rotating the cone, licking up the drips. I recently found a dozen photos of this occasion, photos my mom took. In them, my face, stern with concentration, gets sequentially more and more covered with the chocolate ice cream. Meanwhile Mimi has a look of pure pleasure.

3.   We’re walking back to our seats when over the music I hear a high-pitched screeching. Insistent, plaintive, repetitive: it must be, I realize, a rodent’s scream. I look down at the concrete walkway. See a puffy white popcorn kernel. A balled-up paper napkin. And then, over there, up on two legs, unmistakeable, a baby kangaroo mouse. The size of my big toe. It goes hop-hop-hop a few feet one way, looks around, screams a few times, then hop-hop-hops a few feet back. Scream, scream—its screams pitch to the register of institutional fire alarms. It’s looking for its mom, I say. It reaches the edge of the pathway, but there’s a concrete curb it can’t climb. It turns back again.

A man with a little sleeping baby strapped to his chest walks down the ramp towards us. He sees us looking at the mouse and says, It’s so cute, isn’t it?

He passes, and we linger over the mouse, trying to figure out if there’s any way we can help. Eventually, I gesture that we should go back to our seats. There’s nothing we can do, I say. And we’re missing the show.

Back in my seat I can’t stop worrying about the kangaroo mouse. What fraction of the thousands of people at this sold-out show will walk down that path towards the exits, I wonder. Will someone step on the little mouse? Will it find its mom?

I think of our baby, not yet two years old, home with the sitter. I think of being separated. I eat my ice cream, and my mind makes up a situation to make me feel bad: my baby all alone, no one to keep him safe, to help him to safety. Just the cruel night and the coming stampede.

4.   It’s no way to enjoy a concert, worrying like this, but I can’t help it. This great sad sympathy pushes into me like gusts of fog pushing through a t-shirt, and it spreads. Mouse suffering leads to fear of my child’s suffering. And that leads to the suffering I have been constantly thinking of, these last seven months: the suffering of being killed and maimed and traumatized and displaced and starved. The suffering of the over two million civilians in Gaza, half of whom are children.

5.   A war in a country ten thousand miles away, and yet the images and recordings of the devastation are transmitted so vividly, so gruesomely, that our social media platforms suppress them and our newspapers refuse to print photos of them. I myself don’t often seek them out; looking at them feels like a kind of self-torture. Instead, I get word of these images second- and third-hand, through conversations with work colleagues and through reading long, terrible, thoughtful essays. Even so, these images often keep me up at night.

Here is one sentence from an essay in N+1 by Saree Makdisi: The other day I saw a news clip of a teenage boy crying softly baba, baba, baba (daddy, daddy, daddy) as the dismembered parts of his father’s body were placed on a stretcher by a medic.

6.   Monday, I drive the kid to school. I’m at the four-way stop in front of his preschool, making a left turn, and just as I step on the gas to make the turn, something stops me, and I slam the brakes as an oversized black SUV coming the other way blows through the stop sign without braking, doing 35 or 40. In that stand-still moment as the brakes engage and the other vehicle sails through the intersection, I look inside the other car and see a woman checking her makeup in the rear view mirror. I hit the horn and my little 2012 Ford Fiesta lets out a sorry beep. The SUV is long past. I finish my turn, and only then does my heart start racing. At a safe moment, I look back at the kid. He’s looking over his shoulder, smiling back at me, right there behind the passenger seat where the SUV would have plowed into us, its front bumper at window level. I park, take him out of his car seat. I hug him tight, kiss his forehead, tell him I love him.

7.   I read an article about a new plant that war contractor General Dynamics is opening in Mesquite, Texas that will produce 30,000 artillery shells a month, to be sent to Ukraine. I read an article about how fragments of the concrete-piercing bombs used to kill 9 children, 3 women, and 21 men in a UN School in Gaza tie the weapon to war contractor Woodward HRT, based out of Valencia, 30 miles north of my apartment.

8.   In 2009, during another of Israel’s bombing campaigns in Gaza, the novelist Haruki Murakami received Israel’s top literary award, the Jerusalem Prize. In his acceptance speech he said, I chose to come here rather than stay away. I chose to see for myself rather than not to see. I chose to speak to you rather than to say nothing. Please do allow me to deliver one very personal message. It is something that I always keep in mind while I am writing fiction. I have never gone so far as to write it on a piece of paper and paste it to the wall: rather, it is carved into the wall of my mind, and it goes something like this: “Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg.” Yes, no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg, I will stand with the egg. Someone else will have to decide what is right and what is wrong; perhaps time or history will decide. If there were a novelist who, for whatever reason, wrote works standing with the wall, of what value would such works be?

What is the meaning of this metaphor? In some cases, it is all too simple and clear. Bombers and tanks and rockets and white phosphorus shells are that high, solid wall. The eggs are the unarmed civilians who are crushed and burned and shot by them. This is not all, though. It carries a deeper meaning. Think of it this way. Each of us is, more or less, an egg. Each of us is a unique, irreplaceable soul enclosed in a fragile shell. This is true of me, and it is true of each of you. And each of us, to a greater or lesser degree, is confronting a high, solid wall. The wall has a name: it is “the System.” The System is supposed to protect us, but sometimes it takes on a life of its own, and then it begins to kill us and cause us to kill others—coldly, efficiently, systematically.

9.   I stumble across an April 17 Reuters reportWhen an Israeli shell struck Gaza’s largest fertility clinic in December, the explosion blasted the lids off five liquid nitrogen tanks stored in a corner of the embryology unit. As the ultra-cold liquid evaporated, the temperature inside the tanks rose, destroying more than 4,000 embryos plus 1,000 more specimens of sperm and unfertilized eggs stored at Gaza City’s Al Basma IVF centre. The impact of that single explosion was far-reaching—an example of the unseen toll Israel’s six-and-a-half-month-old assault has had on the 2.3 million people of Gaza. The embryos in those tanks were the last hope for hundreds of Palestinian couples facing infertility. “We know deeply what these 5,000 lives, or potential lives, meant for the parents, either for the future or for the past,” said Bahaeldeen Ghalayini, 73, the Cambridge-trained obstetrician and gynaecologist who established the clinic in 1997. At least half of the couples—those who can no longer produce sperm or eggs to make viable embryos—will not have another chance to get pregnant, he said.

10.   This reminds me of a detail from Saree Makdisi’s essay in N+1With thirty-nine premature babies in incubators and other intensive care patients on ventilators and no electricity, staff resorted to attempting manual resuscitation but knew, without oxygen, that they had little chance; the babies started to die one by one. The doctors fleeing the al-Nasr pediatric hospital had to take what infants they could save as they fled under Israeli shellfire, but had no choice but to leave behind five babies on their own in the flickering incubators.

11.   Before my partner gave birth, we purchased a car seat with an infant insert, and I spent an hour installing it in the rear middle seat of our car. When we were discharged from the hospital, I strapped the baby into the car seat for the first time. Held in by the straps, his head lolled to one side. I was overwhelmed by how fragile and weak he looked. I drove home as carefully as anyone has ever driven.

A few weeks later, we took one of our first family outings to a car seat installation event hosted by the California Highway Patrol. A plainclothes police officer spent twenty minutes crawling in and out of our car, tightening the seat belt, getting it just right. His holstered handgun kept flapping against the car seat, the metal rapping against the plastic. I stood a healthy distance away, holding the newborn to my chest. The cop explained that even though I hadn’t installed the car seat correctly, I had done well by putting it in the middle seat. You have to think of the car like an egg, he said. The exterior is like the shell. And then you put the car seat right at the center, protected from all sides.

12.   In 1972, Neilia Hunter Biden pulled her car out in front of an oncoming tractor trailer. The collision killed her and her daughter Naomi, and it critically injured her sons Beau and Hunter. Her partner, Joe Biden, wasn’t in the car.

In the decades that followed, this tragedy came to be a major part of Joe Biden’s political mythology. He had been elected to the U.S. Senate just 11 days before this collision that killed his wife and daughter. He was sworn in from his sons’ hospital room. By his own account, he survived the grief by devoting himself to fatherhood. Decades later, as Hunter fell into addiction and misbehavior, he remained devoted and worked to get him help. When someone leaked their texts, they included messages from Joe like, “Good morning my beautiful son. I miss you and love you. Dad.”

His celebrated empathy seems not to extend to the children of Palestine. Even as Israel kills these children by the bushel, he refuses to take action to restrain Israel in any way. His press secretary goes so far as to call domestic critics of the invasion of Gaza repugnant and disgraceful.

13.   I wake up thinking about yet another passage from Saree Makdisi’s essay in N+1On November 10, an Israeli drone operator fired a Hellfire R9X missile at the courtyard of al-Shifa hospital, a variant of the missile that, instead of carrying an explosive warhead, unfolds into an array of massive blades like those of a samurai sword, killing by dismembering anyone in its path, leaving bloody limbs and torsos scattered in the hospital forecourt. By nightfall, all the hospitals in the north of Gaza reported being under Israeli artillery and missile fire: showers of incendiary phosphorus just outside, buildings heaving with successive explosions, inundating all within with dust and debris and in some cases shrapnel and shell casings.

14.   The Hollywood Bowl seats 17,500. More than 15,000 children have died in Gaza since October 7. I imagine the Hollywood Bowl nearly sold out. All kids. All dead.

15.   On our Friday evening walk we decide impulsively to walk all the way to Book Soup, a bookstore on the Sunset Strip. We get most of the way there before the baby gets too antsy, and we realize we didn’t pack any snacks, so we turn back. A few blocks from home, on Santa Monica Boulevard, a giant SUV passes with little Israeli flags flying from all of its windows. As I watch, a motorcycle speeds around to pass it, then slows down, looks back, and demonstratively gives the car a big thumbs up.

16.   Reuters circulates a photo captioned Food bound for Gaza rots in the sun as Egypt’s Rafah crossing stays shut. The image captures the moment when a Caterpillar bulldozer pushed thousands and thousands of egg flats off the back of a flatbed truck. The giant heap of eggs and cardboard forms a pyramid almost as tall as the truck itself. It’s the opposite of an easter egg hunt; the labor of ten thousand hens rots on some patchy grass, a scant mile away from a million starving children.

17.   Groups of students create protest camps at UCLA, USC, and Cal State LA. At UCLA, the protesters set up a small library in a corner of their encampment, and they call it the Refaat Alareer Memorial Library, in honor of a Palestinian writer and teacher who died in an Israeli bombing in December. As UCLA professor Anahid Nersessian explains in an essay in the London Review of BooksAfter his death, Alareer became widely known as the author of the poem ‘If I Must Die’, which asks its reader to build a kite in his memory and to fly it ‘so that a child, somewhere in Gaza … awaiting his dad who left in a blaze’, might imagine it’s an angel, ‘bringing back love’. The day after the students set up their encampment at UCLA, it was announced that Alareer’s daughter Shymaa had been killed in an airstrike along with her husband and three-month-old son.

18.   Later in this same piece, Nersessian describes one of the responses to this protest. On the weekend after the encampment was formed, a large group of counter-protesters, few to none of whom appeared to be UCLA students, arrived on campus. They screamed, hurled racial slurs and sexual threats (‘I hope you get raped’) at the students, and opened a backpack full of live mice—swollen, and seemingly injected with some substance—on the ground near the camp. When the counter-protesters dispersed, they left behind a Jumbotron, a massive flat-screen TV, about ten feet high, which had been set in the middle of campus facing the encampment and was surrounded by metal barriers. Paid security guards remained inside the barriers to protect the screen. For the next five days, the Jumbotron played footage of the 7 October attacks on a loop, along with audio clips describing rape and sexual violence in explicit terms.

This strikes me as a strangely literal instantiation of the high, solid wall described by Murakami, against which eggs break.

19.   At the other end of the country, someone pays an advertising company to drive a truck around and around Harvard Yard. The truck’s giant billboard displays, one by one, the faces and names of undergraduate students allegedly affiliated with student groups that signed a pledge opposing Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. Above each of their faces, the organizers have added the words, in an ugly blackletter font, Harvard’s Leading Antisemites.

20.   One weekend I go out for a run during the baby’s nap, and down by Pan-Pacific Park I grow distracted by the din of news and police choppers hovering low just a few blocks away. I change my route to see what’s up. Out on the street I come upon dozens of police officers standing around with their hands on their hips. And then a block later I find a few hundred people engaging in a Gaza solidarity march.

I join the march. So many young people, most of them looking like they might themselves be Palestinian, many wearing keffiyeh. Someone with a bullhorn yells Free Palestine at the crowd, and we yell Free Palestine back. But then the bullhorn person switches chants to There is only one solution: intifada, revolution. For me the term intifada calls back to the Second Intifada and its many terrorist attacks. I don’t want to support terrorism. I’m not comfortable using my voice to condone the Hamas-led attacks on October 7 that killed over 1000 Israelis and took over 250 hostages. I feel unsettled and exposed, alone in this big crowd in my t-shirt and athletic shorts. So as quickly as I joined the march, I slip out and start walking home.

A block away, traffic is snarled, and people are making reckless U-turns. One man behind the wheel of a black SUV revs his engine over and over. He rolls his windows down and begins screaming, hoarsely, This is a Jewish neighborhood. The only witnesses to his anger are me and a four-person family that seems to consist of a grandma, a grandpa, a nine-year-old girl, and a six-year-old boy. They stand there silently eating ice cream cones as this man rages and rages, then finally flips a U-turn and speeds away.

21.   He’s not wrong: our neighborhood is indeed highly Jewish. Mostly Orthodox Jews. The boys play basketball in the park after school, their yarmulkes sometimes flying off during particularly daring drives to the basket. Twice, when they have had an uneven number, one of the boys has come up to me and asked, Are you Jewish? I always apologize. Their games seem spirited and fun.

Even though there are over a dozen synagogues and a dozen day schools and yeshivas within walking distance of my apartment, in the context of Los Angeles they are a small community. When someone put up posters after October 7 with the faces of hostages and the word KIDNAPPING, I felt compassion for the grief and anger this mass hostage-taking caused. And I reflected on how often Jews have had cause to feel like the most vulnerable of eggs in this world of ours. Antisemitism is without doubt real here in the U.S. and around the world—though I see it more often from the right-wing conspiracy promoters who mutter about George Soros and globalists than I do from anyone on the left. That is, unless you think criticism of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians qualifies as antisemitism.

22.   Israeli soldiers raid a refugee camp in Gaza and return with four of the hostages taken on October 7. In the course of their rescue operation, they kill 274 Palestinians, including at least 64 children, 57 women, and 37 elderly people. They wound another 798 Palestinians. I immediately do the math: 68 dead Palestinians per saved hostage. 200 wounded Palestinians per saved hostage. 16 dead children per saved hostage.

The newspapers run photographs of Israeli civilians evidently experiencing states of ecstatic jubilation. Four hostages have come home. Four eggs, alive, safe.

23.   At UCLA, counter-protesters set upon the Gaza solidarity encampment, and for hours they swing metal poles at the UCLA student protesters, throw fireworks into the camp, and generally beat the shit out of these young people. The cops and private security stand by for almost four hours, before running the counter-protesters off without making any arrests.

The next night the police come back and dismantle the encampment, arresting dozens and dozens of students. After the counter-protesters assaulted the camp, they explain, the protest became a public safety hazard.

24.   My partner I are strolling with the baby in Pan-Pacific Park when we notice that the eleven olive trees planted in front of the L.A. Holocaust Museum have all been cut down. The area is now fenced off with green, opaque netting. Before this change, we have always taken the path that leads through the trees. We like to stop and read the plaques under each tree. THIS TREE HONORS / THE RIGHTEOUS FROM BULGARIA / WHO RISKED THEIR LIVES TO SAVE / JEWS DURING THE HOLOCAUSTsays one. The others honor those who helped save Jews from Luxembourg, Austria, Croatia, Belgium, Turkey, Switzerland, Lithuania, Poland, the Netherlands, and Germany.

I ask the security guard posted out front why the trees have been cut down. He didn’t know there had been trees there at all, he says. He explains that all the fencing is due to the museum’s upcoming renovation and expansion the museum. This project will double their square footage.

Maybe it’s weird, but on the walk home I feel a heaviness in my soul. I mourn these olive trees. It feels wrong that they have been torn out, even if it is part of a plan of expansion. Those were beautiful, special trees. People planted them with the thought and intention of spreading peace and preventing future atrocities. And I liked walking through them with my baby, keeping my memory of the Holocaust alive.

25.   It’s too late for those trees, but it’s not too late for the people of Palestine. It’s never too late to stop a genocide. The best time to stop Israel’s assault on Gaza would have been the day before it began. The second-best time is today.

And in a larger sense, we have work to do as humans. Never again needs to mean no genocide in Palestine, no genocide in Ukraine, no genocide in Xinjiang, no genocide in Sudan. We must continue working for a world with no more genocide at all.

26.   Haruki Murakami’s speech usually gets quoted at the part that I’ve quoted above, where he talks about the high, solid wall and the egg, and the importance as a novelist of taking the side of the egg. But I think the last words of his speech might be the most important of all.

I have only one thing I hope to convey to you today. We are all human beings, individuals transcending nationality and race and religion, fragile eggs faced with a solid wall called The System. To all appearances, we have no hope of winning. The wall is too high, too strong—and too cold. If we have any hope of victory at all, it will have to come from our believing in the utter uniqueness and irreplaceability of our own and others’ souls and from the warmth we gain by joining souls together. Take a moment to think about this. Each of us possesses a tangible, living soul. The System has no such thing. We must not allow the System to exploit us. We must not allow the System to take on a life of its own. The System did not make us: we made the System.

That is all I have to say to you.

27.   Some nights, out of an abundance of caution, I go check on the baby before going to bed. I close the door behind me. I wait for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. Gently, careful not to wake him, I put my hand on his stomach. I wait to feel the small, sturdy rise and fall of his breath. He is alive. Slowly, I lift my hand. I slip back out the door and leave him to his dreams.

Editor’s note: an earlier version of this essay was published in Lightplay, Jasper Nighthawk’s email newsletter.