The Joy of Learning a Language

When I was in high school, I took four years of Spanish and two years of French. In my junior year, my mother insisted I take French. I really didn’t want to but couldn’t think of a way out.

To my surprise, I discovered that learning French was more fun than learning Spanish. Each lesson in the French textbook started with a story about French teen-agers. Every day, the teacher played a tape of authentic French speakers acting out the stories with sound effects. Looking back years later, I was inspired to write the following from That’s Life: New and Selected Poems.


In the high school classroom,

as I read the story in the textbook,

I’m in France with Guy and Suzanne,

basking on a sunny beach

or drinking wine in an outdoor café.


As French dance music fills the room

from the tape accompanying the lesson,

I find myself in the arms of a handsome monsieur

after a meal of chicken in wine sauce

topped off with chocolate mousse.

We whirl around the room.


The school bell’s clang jolts me back.

I rise, follow others out of the classroom,

resigned to being a teen-ager in Wyoming.


Did you ever learn a foreign language? How old were you? What was it like? Click on the link below to hear me read the above poem.

Abbie Johnson Taylor, Author of We Shall Overcome and How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver and That’s Life: New and Selected Poems

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During World War II, you’re a crew member of a fighter plane that crashed in the Pacific Ocean. You and two others are the only survivors, marooned on two rafts floating in Japanese territory. Suddenly, a Japanese bomber appears out of the sky, aiming right for you. If you jump in the water, the sharks, waiting for just such a moment, will eat you alive. If you stay on the raft, the aircraft’s ammunition will kill you. This is the story of one such crewman, former Olympic track star Louis Zamperini, who survived weeks on a raft before being picked up by the Japanese and enduring years of torture, starvation, and other hardships in prison camps before being liberated by the war’s end.

Unbroken: The World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand is not something I would normally read, but it was an audiobook my uncle and aunt chose to listen to while we made the long drive to Colorado last week. Despite my dislike of anything with a lot of violence, I found myself fascinated by Louis Zamperini’s story.

He was born on January 26, 1917 in Olean, New York. He died at the age of 97 in Los Angeles, California, on July 2nd, 2014. He served in the U.S. Army Air Corps from 1941 to 1945. His highest rank was captain. He was awarded a Purple Heart, Distinguished Flying Cross, and a Prisoner of War Medal. To learn more about him, visit .

In Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand starts out by describing Louis’s early life in Olean, New York, and then in Torrence, California, where the family moved when he was two. Louis was a wild child, delighting in running away, stealing, playing practical jokes, and many other undesirable activities. His Italian immigrant parents didn’t know what to do with him until as a teen-ager, he took an interest in track. Hillenbrand then describes how he made it to the U.S. Olympic team and participated in the winter games in Germany in 1936. Although he didn’t win a medal, he caught Hitler’s attention by attempting to steal the dictator’s personal flag. I couldn’t help wondering what might have happened to him if he’d been captured by the Germans instead of the Japanese. In 1938, he set a collegiate mile record despite opponents’ attempts to spike him during the race. This record gave him the name “Torrence Tornado.”

In September of 1941 before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Zamperini enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces where he eventually became a second lieutenant. He was deployed to the Hawaiian Islands as a bombardier. Hillenbrand’s fascinating description of the planes in which he flew and bombed islands inhabited by Japanese military operations brought back memories of my younger brother’s interest in World War II aircraft as a child.

In the spring of 1943, he and other crew members were searching for a lost plane and its crew, using a defective B-24. The plane developed mechanical difficulties, and they were forced to crash land in the Pacific Ocean. Hillenbrand vividly describes the crash that killed all but three of the crew members. Zamperini and two others were the only survivors who ended up on two rafts 850 miles west of Oahu.

Hillenbrand then goes on to detail the 47 days spent on the rafts. The men survived by catching and eating raw fish and drinking rain water. They were attacked many times by a Japanese bomber which damaged the rafts, but no one was hit. One man died after 33 days. When they eventually reached the Marshall Islands, they were captured by the Japanese, and their situation went from bad to worse.

Hillenbrand then describes the two and a half years Zamperini spent as a prisoner in several camps where he was starved, tortured, and forced to do hard labor. At one facility in Tokyo, he was offered a job broadcasting propaganda in exchange for better living conditions, but he refused. One of his constant Japanese tormenters was Mutsuhiro Watanabe, nicknamed “The Bird.” Zamperini had beaten many schoolyard bullies as a kid but was no match for this one. Nevertheless, although “The Bird” came close, he didn’t break Louis Zamperini.

In the last few chapters of Unbroken, Hillenbrand describes Zamperini’s transition at the end of the war from being a prisoner to civilian life after being reunited with his family in the fall of 1945. In 1946, he married Cynthia Applewhite and stayed married to her until she died in 2001. Plagued by flashbacks and nightmares, he vowed to return to Japan and find and kill “The Bird,” but this plan was never carried out. He was also consumed by alcoholism. He tried many business ventures, but they all failed.

In 1949, his wife became a born again Christian, and one night when she dragged him to a Billy Graham revival, he remembered a promise he made to God while stranded in the Pacific Ocean and in the prison camps. After that, he stopped drinking, and the nightmares and flashbacks disappeared. In 1950 after becoming an inspirational speaker, he returned to Japan on a peaceful mission to visit and forgive the guards who mistreated him.

Laura Hillenbrand is also the author of the acclaimed Seabiscuit: An American Legend and several magazine articles. She lives in Washington, D.C. Unbroken is the #1 New York Times bestselling author hailed by Time Magazine as the best nonfiction book of the year. For more information about Laura Hillenbrand’s books and to hear an audio sample of Unbroken, visit .

As I said before, I didn’t think I wanted to read Unbroken but found myself compelled by Laura Hillenbrand’s narrative. She touches on the lives of others Zamperini knew during his service in the Air Force, his surviving other crewmate on the rafts, and fellow prisoners in the camps. She also describes what his family went through after being notified that he was missing. When he was declared dead, his parents, brother, and sisters believed he was still alive. When Seabiscuit came out, I didn’t want to read it, either, but now, after reading Unbroken, I’m suddenly interested in horse racing.

Abbie Johnson Taylor, Author of We Shall Overcome and How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver and That’s Life: New and Selected Poems

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Betty White Dyes

In case you didn’t look closely at the title, this actress did not die at the age of 92. Her manager says he has booked her for an engagement when she turns 100, and there’s no out clause. However, many fans misread a headline of a satirical article online that talks about how Betty White dyes her hair at home and spread the news on Twitter that she had passed away. Talk about fun pun. You can learn more about this at .

A couple of years ago, I read a book by Betty White in which she talks about her life and other topics. I wonder what she thinks of this. Since she’s not dead, I’ll re-blog my review of her book from May of 2012.

If You Ask Me

Betty White’s book by that title is pretty good, especially if you get a recording of her reading it. I downloaded such a recording from and had some good laughs. I also couldn’t help laughing when I saw her on television as the scatter-brained Rose on The Golden Girls. She was also in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but I was a little young when that was running. My mother watched that as religiously as I watched The Golden Girls.

Betty White was born on January 17th, 1922 in Oak Park Illinois. Her mother was a homemaker, and her father was a traveling salesman and engineer. Her family moved to Los Angeles during the Great Depression. She attended Horace Mann and Beverly Hills High School. Hoping to be a writer, she became more interested in acting after writing and playing the lead role in a graduation play at Horace Mann.

Her television career began in 1939 when she and a former high school classmate sang songs from The Merry Widow on an experimental Los Angeles channel. She also worked in radio and movies. Best known for her roles in The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls, she performed in a variety of television shows including Life with Elizabeth, Date with the Angels, The Betty White Show, The Golden Palace, Hot in Cleveland, and Betty White’s Off Their Rockers. Since Rue McClanahan’s death in 2010, she is the only living golden girl. She won seven Emmy awards and received twenty Emmy nominations. She was the first woman to receive an Emmy award for game show hosting for Just Men and is the only person to have an Emmy award in all female comedic performing categories. In May 2010, she was the oldest person to guest host Saturday Night Live and won a Primetime Emmy Award for this. As of 2012 at the age of ninety, she is the oldest Emmy nominee. To learn more about her, visit .

In If You Ask Me, Betty combines her ideas on such topics as friendship, technology, and aging with anecdotes from her childhood, career, and work with animals. She talks about developing a friendship with a guerilla, meeting two whales, and adopting a dog rejected by Guide Dogs for the Blind. I can relate when she says how frustrating it is not to recognize a face, especially when the face belongs to a celebrity she meets at a party and thinks she should know. Being visually impaired, I have the same problem but don’t run into any celebrities at parties. Anyway, I recommend this book to anyone needing some good laughs.

Abbie Johnson Taylor, Author of We Shall Overcome and How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver and That’s Life: New and Selected Poems

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Baseball Revisited

On September 10th, my late husband Bill and I would have been married nine years. One of Bill’s passions was baseball, and his favorite team was the Colorado Rockies. I don’t know if he ever went to a Rockies game, but I hope to do so next week.

On Sunday, I’ll be driving with my uncle and aunt from Sheridan to Colorado Springs where we’ll stay with relatives. My uncle from Los Angeles, a Dodgers fan, will be flying in, and he has tickets to the Rockies/Dodgers game on Monday. I hope that Bill will be with me in spirit, as I cheer his team to victory. In celebration of our ninth wedding anniversary, I’m re-blogging a post about baseball from last year. Enjoy!

At the Old Ball Game

Baseball season officially starts today when the Houston Astros take on the Texas Rangers. If Bill were still alive, he would be anticipating the Colorado Rockies opening game. The house will be oddly quiet without the thwack of bat against ball, the roar of the crowd, and the radio announcer’s excited voice when a player makes a home run.

Believe it or not, I wrote a poem about baseball. This is a fun pun poem which consists of words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings, i.e. sight (s I g h t) instead of site. (s I t e.” After you read this poem, you can click on the link below to hear me sing a well-known song about one of America’s favorite pastimes.


If you get a fowl bawl, (b a w l) you’re not playing the game write. (w r I t e) When you’re on home plate, and you see the ball coming toward you, swing the bat and prey (p r e y) that it connects with the bawl (b a w l) and sends it  in the write (w r i t e) direction. Theirs `(t h e i r s) a trick to that you will master only after months of practice and only if you have good I’s. (I ‘ s) It mite (m I t e) be better two (t w o) dew (d e w) something like water aerobics which doesn’t require a lot of I (i) site. (s I t e) It beats being hit in the knows (k n o w s) with a bawl. (b a w l)

Abbie Johnson Taylor, Author of We Shall Overcome and How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver and That’s Life: New and Selected Poems


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In 1952, you’re a teen-aged girl in Ireland. After a romantic encounter with a man you meet at a fair, you become pregnant. In shame, your family sends you away to a convent.

It’s a breech birth. The nuns have little or no medical training. Other women and children have died during childbirth there and are buried in unmarked graves nearby. The mother superior believes that the pain of childbirth is God’s punishment for carnal sin so no drugs are administered. In agony, as the nun removes the baby with forceps, you beg her not to “let them put him in the ground.” Miraculously, you give birth to a healthy baby boy. Thus begins the story of Philomena, a book I’ve read and a movie I’ve seen.

Martin Sixsmith, the author of The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, (2009) and Philomena, with Dame Judi Dench, (2013) is a British author, Russian scholar, BBC presenter, and former advisor to the government in the United Kingdom. He has written about Russian history, the scandal surrounding the adoption of Irish children by American parents, and other current events. Besides two books about Philomena Lee, the Irish mother forced to give up her child for adoption, his other work includes Russia: A 1000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East, (2012) and Spin. (2005) In his writing, he has also focused on political communication in government. To read more about him, visit .

In Philomena, after a short introduction by Dame Judi Dench, the actress who portrayed her in the movie, Martin Sixsmith starts by describing the details of the birth of Philomena’s son Anthony and their lives afterward in the convent. Philomena and other girls who had babies out of wedlock were virtual prisoners at the convent for four years, working to pay off the cost of their care, so to speak. She worked in the laundry seven days a week and by night, she and the other girls sewed clothes for their children who stayed in the convent until they were adopted. The mothers were allowed daily contact with their children and naturally, they developed close bonds.

Sixsmith also touches on the sale of Irish children to American families by the Catholic Church. He describes how some Irish government officials tried to block such adoptions but were thwarted by the Catholic Church. In 1955, Philomena was forced to sign papers giving Anthony up for adoption, and he was taken to the U.S. to live with a family in Missouri. Mary, a little girl at the convent about the same age who developed a close friendship with Anthony, was also taken by the same family who didn’t want to separate the children.

The remainder of Martin Sixsmith’s book is devoted primarily to Anthony’s story. The family who adopted him and Mary changed his name to Michael, and Sixsmith describes his life growing up in Missouri and Iowa. The friendship between Michael and Mary grew stronger in America, and in later years, Mary was the only one in the family who supported him. All through his life, Michael wondered about his natural mother. His adoptive parents, who knew the truth, thought it better to tell him that his mother abandoned him.

Sixsmith explains how Michael first realized he was gay as a teen-ager. A priest at Notre Dame University told Michael that homosexuality is a sin and encouraged him to purge himself of his desires. Michael tried but found himself becoming more and more involved in such activities.

In the 1970’s after graduating from Notre Dame and receiving a law degree from George Washington University, Michael worked for the National Republican Committee in D.C. and eventually became the chief counsel for the White House. Sixsmith pinpoints the irony of a gay man working for the Republican Party during the Reagan and Bush eras when homosexuality was considered taboo and Republicans blocked funding for AIDS research. This, combined with feelings of abandonment Michael harbored from his childhood, caused mood swings and bouts of drinking and engaging in sadomasochistic activities. Most of his relationships didn’t last long.

In the 1970’s Michael and Mary made a trip to Ireland in an attempt to find their mothers but were told by the nuns at the convent that they had no records. In the 1990’s, after Michael developed AIDS, he made a second trip to Ireland with his partner, Pete Nelson, and was told that records from the 1950’s were destroyed in a fire. They later learned at the bed and breakfast where they were staying that the nuns deliberately set the fire because of an investigation into the Catholic Church’s practice of selling Irish children to American families for adoption. Michael died a year or so later, never knowing about his mother. At his request, he was buried at the convent in Ireland where he was born.

At the end of the book, Martin Sixsmith devotes a couple of chapters to Philomena after Anthony was taken from her in 1955. I would like to have read more about her, but she may not have wanted her life revealed in such detail. After Anthony left the convent, bound for the U.S., the nuns sent Philomena to work at a school for boys in England, and she eventually became a nurse. She married twice and had several children and grandchildren. She made frequent trips to the convent in Ireland to inquire about her son but was rebuffed by the nuns every time. She kept the secret of Anthony’s birth from her family for fifty years.

After she finally broke down and told them, her daughter introduced her to Sixsmith, and the three of them visited the convent in Ireland. By this time, there were different nuns with more liberal views, and through other channels, they were able to learn of Anthony’s life in America and that he passed away and was buried at the convent.

I liked Martin Sixsmith’s style of writing this book. Besides giving us a journalistic rundown of all the events and when they happened, he takes us into the lives of the main characters, telling us what they were feeling and thinking. The book was written like fiction, and I was compelled to keep reading to the end.

On the other hand, the movie doesn’t tell the whole story and uses some artistic license. After Sixsmith meets Philomena’s daughter at a party, he is introduced to her mother, and the two of them travel to Ireland to inquire about Anthony. The nuns tell them their records from the 1950’s were destroyed in a fire and show Philomena the contract she signed, giving Anthony up for adoption that stated she agreed not to try to contact him. Sixsmith later learns from locals in a pub that the nuns started the fire.

The search for Anthony takes Martin and Philomena to Washington, D.C. where they learn of his life and passing. After talking with Mary and Pete Nelson, they learn of Michael’s burial at the convent in Ireland. Upon their return, Martin becomes confrontational with one of the nuns and Philomena finds her son’s grave and says goodbye. I enjoyed the performances of Dame Judi Dench and the other actors, but the movie left a lot to be desired, compared to the book.

According to Sixsmith, Michael requested that “Danny Boy” be sung at his funeral in Washington, D.C. before he was taken to Ireland for burial. This is a song I’ve sung many times in the fifteen years I worked as a music therapist in a nursing home. I can’t think of a better way to end this post. Please click on the link below to hear me sing the song one more time.

Abbie Johnson Taylor, Author of We Shall Overcome and How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver and That’s Life: New and Selected Poems

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