Puzzle Patterns, Bells and Structure

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I often think of decoding grammar as piecing together a giant word filled jigsaw puzzle. A thousand pieces to put together on a kitchen table is really not so daunting compared to the complex ways English and other languages fit together, moving with our new ideas and needs for communication. The analogy somehow helps me get it together in my mind, especially when the puzzle feels as trying as this guy’s vase.

The other day I was talking to my class about parallel structure, that part of sentences where the pieces need to fit together. In parallel structure, the writer has a series of items that need to match or run parallel to one another. I wrote up a few examples to explain what I mean by this. Examples always work better for me in the puzzle of English than explanations.

With parallel structure in verb forms:

I like knitting, running, and looking at different art forms.

Without parallel structure in verb forms:

I like knitting, to run, and looking at different art forms.

With parallel structure in adverbs:

The great barn owl sat on the post regally, solemnly, and aloofly.

Without parallel structure using adverbs and a prepositional phrase (I think I’ve been guilty of this one):

The great barn owl sat on the post regally, solemnly, and with no interest in his onlookers.

With parallel structure in noun phrases:

The lady sat on a fence thinking about the ways she could get off the fence, the marvelous view she had while staying on the fence, and the horses who might let her stay for a few more minutes without demanding more grass.

Without parallel structure in noun phrases and an infinitive:

The lady sat on a fence thinking about the ways she could get off the fence, the marvelous view she had while staying on the fence, and to wish the horses might let her stay for a few more minutes without demanding more grass.

While I explained this, it occurred to me that another story I had just read by Miki Craighead would be the perfect example to help students understand the way parallel structure fits together. In my textbook there were several examples of patterns to show students to help them find the patterns of structure. The patterns were not very original and did not come with an interesting story. They looked something like this:

a, b, c, ?

10, 20, 30, ?

So I told them the story of Miki’s family bell system with its code for each of the children.

That pattern has a delightful story of children playing and a creative father who designed a sort of Morse code to call his kids in when needed. The pattern looked like this:

____ – , ____ – -, ____ – – -, ____ – – – -, ?

I sensed my students liked the bell system better than the overworked alphabet. And a neurologist I once listened to kept me spellbound for a 3 hour lecture by sprinkling stories into his lecture about Brain Rules. In any case, I am hoping Miki’s story lifted the grammar up a bit out of the drudgery for them.

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The Horse Road

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Out my door and to the left and past the newest development with million dollar homes my boys and I have found a place of wonder. To the east of the road sits a pasture where horses roamed when we first moved here. On the other side, blackberries my sons love to pick crawl over the fences of a mostly abandoned gravel pit. I have never seen inside the fences through the thick brambles.

At the north end of the quarter mile I can see into the Port of Tacoma and we often marvel at the container cranes that reach into the sky above. Across the horse pasture and peeking through the trees, we see Mt. Rainier although he avoids a good picture and the images invariably turn out grainy with my phone’s ineffective zoom.The entire road stretches for about a quarter mile, takes a sharp left and dips steeply down to a four lane road with cars zipping past, never knowing the treasures they missed.

When we first moved here in 2006, the Horse Road quickly got its name from the herd that stood munching and gazing at us as we walked by on our outings or drove by on the way to somewhere else. The animals gazed at us, and we gazed at them or gave them grass pulled from the side of the road.

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People apparently think the place looks deserted enough to dump their garbage regularly and count on the wildlife not to rat them out. Our latest pile had toys that looked miserable in the chill air as if the dolls and plastic houses also wished their owners had thought to drive ten more minutes to the local Goodwill instead of tossing them where we love to walk. My 3 year old had a lot to say about how he would never dump his toys out and planned to keep them safe in our ever growing piles at home. Over the years, I’ve seen mattresses, sofas, burnt out stolen cars, bags full of clothing and scattered pull tabs. It’s hard not to feel a stab of anger at those who defile the Horse Road.

In spite of the ugly signs of humanity, though, I’ve noticed that the wild animals love this place. My sons and I get glimpses of them, especially if we happen to move along this stretch of pavement on the off hours.

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One late evening soon after we moved in, Kieran and I saw bats fluttering in the tall evergreens past the fields. We stopped to look, taking in their black skinned wings fluttering in circles.

At other times, we see rabbits in the bushes or the birds that line the fences. Goldfinches dive and swirl in the spring, and frogs begin their song around the same time, filling the night and reaching our windows back home with their chorus of calls for mates.

On a blustery day, I drove down the road and slammed the brakes to avoid the horse who had no fence to stop him from leaping in front of my moving vehicle. I pulled to the side and managed to shoo him down the drive back to his people and the fences he needed to keep him safe.

Over time, this stretch of road has come to mean home to me as much as the sight of my own driveway. On a run one afternoon after returning from China, still feeling the pull of my finished adventure and the people I left on another continent, I knew I was really and fully home when I saw the mountain in the evening air of the Horse Road on a late fall day after the birds had mostly gone for the winter.

In the spring of 2012, the unimaginable happened and the horses disappeared. Their owner had troubles with another tenant on the land she leased and decided the conflict wasn’t worth the effort to stay. For months after, my heart sank at the sight of the empty field on my way home from work. The grass grew taller and the deer moved through more often. Critters continued to appear, and we still have one solitary horse from a different renter at the tip of the drive nearest the view of container cranes. But the neighbors say the herd and the spring foals moved to a distant place ‘out in the county.’

In spite of the loss, we keep our eyes at the ready, especially after dusk, driving  home from events, winding our way up the road, and and gazing into the deep dark along the pasture. Wild animals come out of hiding then and look at us in wonder because they know we are in their space. One night last spring, we saw frogs everywhere on the road. My son who loves anything amphibious leapt out of the car as I stopped every few feet so he could rescue the little ones from a certain squishing. We thought we spotted  a small worm another night that turned out to be a salamander, or ‘water puppy’ as my dad always liked to call them on long ago hikes.

Golden eyes blink at us out of the soupy blackness. Sometimes they are cats and often I never know what hides and stares at us.

This past week we found the most amazing sight yet. An barn owl sat on the post of the development staring at us with its wide heart-shaped face and fluttering to and fro as he realized we had slowed the car to gaze in awe at his white feathers. My husband said he might even be hunting in a field more full of mice since the horses moved heartrendingly away. I felt grateful that the horse road lives and breathes even after the four leggeds we named it after moved away.

As I’ve said in other posts, I’ve grown old enough to know that nothing lasts forever. The land owner could decide to sell and make another million dollar development. The gravel pit owners could do the same. The pasture and pit full of brambles could easily vanish like the horse herd. But for now, I know we have something spectacular outside our driveway full of gravel and leaves. I intend to keep my eyes and heart open every time we drive or stroll down our Horse Road.

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