Universal Grammar, Early & Often, Katzenjammering & The Horrible State of the World. Niching Up.

Made the mistake of checking CBC news a couple of weeks ago — right before bed, of all the worst times to do it. It was Canadian news; figured it might be tame, y’know?

Why do I check the news? I dunno. I guess because I feel it’s my duty. My mom, European-born-and-raised as she is, used to quiz me on whether I was up to date on recent news events. I never was. Had I heard? No, I never had.

Yes, people thought I was simple. Not witty. The more worldly and witty they were, the simpler and more witless they thought I was. I was simple. I wasn’t witty. Looking back, I now see I was one of the happiest, radiantly positive people I knew, most of the time, possibly partly because of it.

“Never change.” That’s what people used to tell me, wherever I went, when I was very young. Hard to imagine now. Sure haven’t heard that recently.

I think what they meant was “don’t ever change, in the amount of love you are radiating. ‘Cause it feels so damn good to be in your presence.”

(Damn or damned? I choose “damn,” even though I know it’s grammatically “incorrect,” because I’m in the “descriptive” rather than “prescriptive” linguistic camp, most of the time. Disciple of Noam and his Universal Grammar and all that. Also, I choose damn, not darn, because I want to express the irony I feel over the sentiment, and over the lack of thought inherent in its source. An expletive, I feel, expresses that irony perfectly. But I digress.)

(And continue to digress…) In spite of feeling mostly at home in the descriptivist linguistic camp, there are some things I do have linguistic peeves about. (One of them used to be dangling prepositions, but not any more. ;)) One such peeve is the pronunciation of the word “niche,” as in “find your niche,” as a blogger. I truly believe /nich/ sounds awful, and parasitic, like tics and nits and other bugs; whereas /neesh/ sounds classier and closer to the original root word.

niche (n.)

1610s, “shallow recess in a wall,” from French niche “recess (for a dog), kennel” (14c.), perhaps from Italian nicchia “niche, nook,” from nicchio “seashell,” said by Klein and Barnhart to be probably from Latin mitulus “mussel,” but the change of -m- to -n- is not explained. Watkins suggests that the word is from an Old French noun derived from nichier “to nestle, nest, build a nest,” via Gallo-Roman *nidicare from Latin nidus “nest” (see nidus), but that has difficulties, too. Figurative sense is first recorded 1725. Biological use dates from 1927.


(Well then. For those of us hoping to “find our /neesh/,” let’s hope Watkins was right, eh folks? I’d rather be a bird in a nest, than a dog in a kennel, any day. [Fuggedabout the mussel proposition. That makes no sense whatever. -m- to -n- changes must be explained!])

When I first heard this concept being pedalled around — as in, “Find your niche!” “Niche down!” — I felt truly exasperated. No, people. It’s not possible to “find your niche,” when you don’t know what you’re doing. And the only ones reading this OPOC-SHIT-YM (what I call Other People’s Online Content, particularly Self-Help produced with the Intent to Take Your Money) are those of us who haven’t a clue what we’re doing. So stop, right there. What we need to do —in the beginning, at least — is NICHE UP.

My husband never stops yammering on (using his expression, the one he also uses for me, actually ;)) about this book called The Lean Startup. It’s yet another great book I’ve started but haven’t finished. Anyway, one of the book’s main concepts is that you should iterate in public, and you should ship early and often.

“Early and often” is a concept that rings a bell for me. I first heard it (I believe) at a La Leche League meeting. La Leche League, for those who don’t know, is a grassroots, nonprofit organization that helps mothers learn the art of mothering through breastfeeding. Yep, I just said that word. Breastfeeding.

Anyway, the key concept that LLL impresses upon new mothers is that the best way to get a baby to breastfeed from the start, is to put him to the breast early and often. As in, right after birth and then very, very often after that.

Early and often. Early and often. Can’t be said enough. When it comes to breastfeeding babies at least. But also business iterations. And writing habits. And giving love, and attention, to people/animals/projects/things that want nurturing, in general.

That said, if you feel you’re starting late, you can still begin. Amazing things have happened, even in terms of mothers and babies and breastfeeding. (Took me seven weeks to get a good latch with my first one.) Even adoptive mothers have been able to generate milk. Even fathers. (Not prescribing that, necessarily, just describing it. This is about promoting wild potential and possibility, not guilt.

Man I loved Meet the Fockers. Hilarrrrrious.

Anyway.  Looks like I’ve been yammering on again.

Let’s look at the word yammer, shall we?

Screen Shot 2018-11-20YammerKatzenjammerEtymologyOnline(Compressed)
Image source: https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=yammer

OMG. I’m in love. (I have a deep, ongoing romance with etymology.)

First of all, yammer’s root means “to lament; to mourn, complain.” Yes, I do this a lot. I mean, a lot.

I hadn’t known that was the origin of the word. But of course, it all makes sense now. Growing up, I heard the word often, though pronounced differently, by my mom, and our Dutch relatives: “jammer.” In Dutch, the “j” is pronounced “y” and the “a” is more rounded and rear in the mouth, so the word sounds sort of like “yummer.” “Dat is jammer.” That’s too bad.

Then, I see there is this variant: katzenjammer.

katzenjammer (n.)

1821, in a German context, “a hangover,” American English colloquial, from German Katzenjammer “hangover” (18c.), also figuratively, in colloquial use, “remorse of conscience, vow to mend one’s ways,” literally “wailing of cats, misery of cats,” from katzen, combining form of katze “cat” (see cat (n.)) + jammer “distress, wailing” (see yammer (v.)).

Pleasure can intoxicate, passion can inebriate, success can make you quite as drunk as champagne. The waking from these several stages of delights will bring the same result–Katzenjammer. In English you would call it reaction; but whole pages of English cannot express the sick, empty, weary, vacant feeling which is so concisely contained within these four German syllables. [“Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine,” August 1884]

So back to the news.

What I read in the news the other night was too, too bad. And what I did that night was experience katzenjammer. A terrible, horrific hangover… From the news. Which had given more graphic detail than was necessary. More than was compassionate to the assaulted person as well as anyone who cared about him — least of all, but still including, me, a complete stranger. Details like those should be left only to any assaulted person to broadcast one day, in his/her own, grown-up version of the story, if he/she should so wish.

Katzenjammer became a verb for me, in that moment. Without giving away details (I only said — or rather, wailed — that a boy had been attacked by a mob of other boys, who’d then circulated videos of their own horrid crime on social media), I katzenjammered to my own boys, to my husband, and to my pillow, for that boy, that dear, beloved boy. (I don’t know him, but all children are dear, and should be beloved.) I katzenjammered for his parents. I later katzenjammered over the phone, to a soul sister in Canada. She told me that she and her friend had heard about it and cried over it too.

So I wasn’t crazy. There were women half a world away from here, feeling the same as I did. She listened to me wail, and she cried too, and she said, through her tears, I’m so, so sorry you’re so sad.

That’s what we Canadians say. We say “I’m sorry”, a lot. Even when it’s not our fault.

But… what if it partly… is?


It was killing me inside, thinking of it all. I mean that truly. When you identify as “HSP” (Highly Sensitive Person) you avoid the news and other upsetting writings like the plague, because it’s like you’re in the actual space/time when/where it happens; you can feel it unfold before you just by reading a few black lines of text on a white page. But I also katzenjammered for the mob of boys that had attacked him. And the world that allowed it, or caused it, to happen.

This is truly a world tragedy. Why? Because those of us crying know that it’s just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Just one small signal of a superficial world that is deeply changing, and whose inhabitants have not yet caught up with the changes in a way where we can protect themselves, nor, more importantly, teach our children to protect themselves. And protect one another.

Next I called my mother. It was 2:00 am, the middle of night by then, on my side of the world, while the light was just turning to dusk, in hers. She’s emotionally reactive, like I am, most days, but if someone else is katzenjammering, something changes in her. She deflects and soothes.

“You must stop thinking of it now. Good forces are at work. You are not responsible for the world. Good is everywhere and it works through many. The boy will be all right. His family will be all right. They are being helped.” I am paraphrasing, but this is all the gist of what she says, finally ending with, “Write a letter. Or go to bed. Get some sleep.”

I loved her for that. It did help, truly. But… I couldn’t get to sleep. What was the state of the world coming to? How could I keep my own boys safe? How could I ensure that they — who, if their father is any genetic indication, will grow into physically and mentally strong men — would act safely and responsibly towards others? How much do I say to them? How much do I leave unsaid?

The following week, another story. This time in England. Again a mob of boys. Again on school grounds. The attack was not nearly as severe. But still deeply disturbing. This time, a white-boy bully shaming a Syrian boy (a refugee, for heaven’s sakes!), backed by a mob of other white boys. Again, being filmed and propagated on social media by the attackers. I think that’s why these incidents are so deeply disturbing to me. That these bullies don’t even seem to understand in the slightest that what they are doing is so deeply, insanely wrong. That they are actually boasting about it. That is the awful thing upon the awful thing.

That story had came through on my usually innocuous Twitter feed, in between quotes from the stoics and the Dalai Lama.

What do we do, we who consider ourselves pacifists, who are so affected by these awful real-life stories from the news? Selectively unsubscribe? No more news? Remove ourselves from social media? Live in a blissful bubble? But then, there’s always platitude #17 to think about: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

And even if you abstain from news and social media, stories continue to unfold. How much a part of them should we be?

Another story came via word of mouth, from a friend. She worked at a senior secondary semi-boarding school (here in the remote French countryside, nearly all the senior secondary schools are weekday boarding schools, located in the far-away cities), where the twenty-something male adult in charge of night-watch in the dorms had been caught smoking joints with the (teenage) students and showing them video clips he’d made of himself shaming an elderly woman whom he looked after as a second job.


The guy was caught because one of the kids was brave enough to quietly tell a trusted adult. THANK GOODNESS for that kid. That kid is among the world-changers.


It was overwhelming. I could not stand it. I could not sleep over it. There are big problems and I couldn’t make them go away with some magic words. None of us could. Or could we?

What is the magic formula?

Is it helping babies and parents, of all backgrounds and origins, feel nurtured and supported, right from birth? If so, how?

Is it teaching kids how to filter online content, and also the content of what they hear from their own peers, and parents, and others who look after them? (All the while reminding them that you can’t “un-see” or “un-hear” something, and “monkey hear, monkey see equals monkey speak, monkey do”?)  

Is it helping them (and ourselves) find new and creative ways to block peer pressure? Channel or change aggression into something more productive, less destructive?

Creativity, for example. Brené Brown mentions that many kids are shamed out of creativity early on in life. Is part of the solution helping boys feel “ok,” within themselves and around others, in an increasingly difficult world where they are being criticized, and abandoned to the “dark (worldwide) webs,” because parents find it increasingly difficult to raise them?

We need more lessons on compassion and social responsibility. We need to be okay with boys being creative, and with boys showing nurturing tendencies from an early age.

Re: Violent & Desensitizing Video Games

Many of our kids’ school chums play games like Fortnite or Grand Theft Auto (“GTA” for short) — games rated 18R, with content, if you screen it online, much worse than their titles sound — and their parents think it’s okay (or they are simply not aware—or the games were actually the father’s, to begin with, or an older brother’s). Some parents even justify it. They say, “but if we don’t allow them to play those games that everyone is playing, their friends will shun them. They won’t fit in!”

This topic came up in our house. Usually I’m undecided about things, and I don’t like to be disliked, nor risk the chance of being wrong, even in my own family. So, quite often, I capitulate, when I’m uncertain.

But this, for me, was a rare non-issue. I grew up in a household where guns, even toy guns, where not at all tolerated, and neither were video game consoles. Back then, my pacifist, school-teacher parents thought even Space Invaders was bad. (I still agree.) They went by the unspoken edict, “if it ain’t much good, it’s probably bad,” and that’s how I still feel about most things media-related.

“Look,” I heard myself saying, “you’re one of the strongest boys in your class, in the eldest year-level in the school. You’re admired for your height and strength. You/we are in a rare position here. ‘They (“the mob”) might not listen to the smallest, most awkward-looking kid (unless that kid manages to radiate strength in other domains). But they respect you, just for your outside appearance. You’re in such a place of power, a place of power that you happened upon by chance. You/we have got to use that place of privilege for good. Otherwise it’s no good. ‘Man up.’ ‘Woman up.’ Niche up. Whatever. Just bring that sh*t the f*ck up.”

And that’s another thing. This may be controversial, but I said to the kids, use whatever language you have to.

In university, we linguistics students learned about sociolects.

I say, if your gut tells you it would be more effective, why not use the language your peer-pressuring friends use? Use their lingo. Yes even if it includes swearing. E.g. “F*ck no, man. That sh*t is not cool. Think about it. You go online to shoot your friends in the head? [Not even kidding. FortNite. Parents, check out reviews.] F*ckin’ stupid, man. That sh*t ain’t for me.”

Someone very dear told me, in the midst of my katzenjammering, that he’d once visited a neighbourhood school-chum’s house as a child, and the adults had porn playing on the VCR, in full sight of the kids, apparently thinking that was okay. Friggin’ porn, for chrissakes!

After he’d told his mother, he’d not been allowed to go there anymore. His mother might not had the energy or resources to change what the neighbourhood was doing, but she could say, “Not under my watch. Not under my roof. Let your friends come here, instead. And I will do my best to try to help them filter what they see and hear.” There’s another example we can all take a cue from.

Some kids nowadays have unrestricted access to the Internet, not even because their parents think it’s okay, but because there are no simple solutions for setting up safe and educational-only, user-specific web browsing, across homes and devices. Or because the parents themselves are screen-addicted and don’t make the time to supervise their kids.

Or because the parents themselves are not online-savvy, and not aware of its potentially malignant pathways.

We should all be aware and vigilant about the fact that kids can end up seeing stuff they are not even looking for. I once did a search for the French school-year holiday calendar (“calendrier vacances scolaires”) and was appalled at what came up at the top of the search results list. I clicked on the relevant-seeming URL (something like vacances-scolaires-[official-official-sounding-name].com) — and what did it lead me to? A friggin’ porn site. What does that mean? It means that nefarious enterprises are targeting school kids out there. School kids who are innocently looking up school-related stuff.

And apparently, until that moment, even I, old WWW vet that I am (I’ve been using this thing since the early nineties, for heaven’s sakes), didn’t know enough to set my own search safety parameters to “high” nor even “moderate” on my various browsers (because I’m the only one using my computer and because I don’t look for things I can’t “un-see.”) Then again, I’d never gone looking for school holiday schedules before. Shame on me for being so “curious.” (Sarcasm.)

This has to change. We need to channel and guide technology to be used more for good; we need to allow it to be used/abused/exploited less for mindless greed and pleasure at the expense of others, most of all minors. “Why are there not more simple apps/technologies/solutions that EASILY enable parents and children to filter household input?” I wail, to my husband. “Because there’s no money and little interest in it,” he replies, matter-of-factly.


The next night, after dinner, I stared, devastated, into space, while I was supposed to be reading bedtime stories to my youngest boy, Z. (The older ones now read to themselves.) Z, snuggled into my side as I sat on the bed, back against the wall, listless, still reeling from the news, looked at me worriedly, hugging me with his little arms, saying, I love you so much, mama. It’s going to be okay, mama. No matter what.

Then he read the bedtime book to me. It was a story my sister had given him, about a little boy who takes up a purple crayon, and draws the world he wants to see around him, as he goes. Sometimes the boy gets scared of his own creations; he falters and falls into his own shakily-drawn oceans. But always he manages to save himself, by creating something solid to grab onto.

Finally, at the end of the day, having done good, adventurous, creative work, he “draws” up the covers of his own bed, and goes to sleep.

Shall we not all take a cue from this storybook boy, with his purple crayon, and learn to draw up/create the world we wish to see around us? Do good, creative work… and draw ourselves out of darkness? Add some light where there was none?

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” —Martin Luther King, Jr.

And then, of course, go to sleep. In the end, we do need sleep.

Less late-night news, less social media, more snuggling with our kids, reading with them, or just talking with them, face to face… more creating, less consuming… and more sleep. What if that were the magic solution?

Open to any and all ideas/comments.

With love, especially for boys, in this moment, and anyone who cares about them, including my sister, who gives great books to her nephews.




  • Book for young kids: Harold and the Purple Crayon. Creativity-and-physics-based video game inspired by the book: Crayon Physics Deluxe
  • Do check out Season 1, Episode 12 of Liz Gilbert’s Magic Lessons podcast, for deep, research-based creative insights from Brené Brown. It may cause you to re-examine the way you were spoken to as a child, and how that affected your creative life, and best of all, it may change the way you talk to children, most of all boys.
  • Edit 2018-12-10: I think I might have found something here in the way of a good online solution: https://jam.com. Free trial, then a very reasonable $25/month for four kids. We plan on trying it out in the coming weeks. Edit again: did not work out for us. Life is complicated.

Nadine inhales & exhales words & images from current vantage point in Zone of Emptiness, France. If you wish to contribute and/or show appreciation, please recommend/like and/or comment — or write an email via the contact page. Feedback welcome. Thank you for reading. 🖤



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