Once Among the Clouds: Part Two

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Part One

Strat recoiled in horror. How could Cirri have betrayed him like that? Like how he had betrayed her…

He shot his gaze out to the horizon, looking in the direction of the dust cloud. Already he could make out the community reforming upon it. They had found it, they were growing, they would be ready for him. Stratocirrus had left a guard to protect it, but that would have died at the same time as Cirri, when he Strat undid their pact.

Now was the time for decision. If he wanted, he might be able to run and hide. The community would no doubt hunt after him and seek their vengeance, but he might be able to find refuge in some migrating cloud caravan. On the other hand…he could try to challenge them for the resource. They would have the advantage, together they were larger, and they could take a defensive position. But still, it would be close. He might just be able to pull it off.

Strat’s face etched with hateful resolve and he spread himself to catch the wind. His tendrils groped about until one of them found a slipstream and hooked into it, rushing off towards the distant dust cloud and dragging the rest of him along with.

He kept his body stretched out like a javelin, maintaining maximum speed as he raced the distance to the community. They were drawing quite close now. He could already make out their sentries catching sight of him and scrambling to alert the others. If he wanted to perform a standard frontal assault he should start slowing down now. Instead he hurtled onward, rushing on the community before they could get up any defenses.

At the last possible second he spread his body out and stretched it into a mist. With his great velocity he continued streaking forward, piercing through to the heart of the dust cloud. Strat began congealing back together, and as he did so absorbed what dust particles he could into himself. Those particles bonded with stray water vapor in the air, and from that new cloud patches began to accumulate on him, slowly building up his body.

Of course the downside to his daring charge was that he was now smack in the midst of the cloud community as well, and they were descending on him with murderous intent. They had already become engorged in their brief period among the dust, and were large enough to have complete temperature and pressure control. They tightened themselves together, working as a unit to lower the temperature around them, causing mighty ripples of wind angled straight for Strat.

Strat groaned in frustration as the currents whipped his form. He tried to tighten himself, but that made the more powerful gusts cleave entire chunks off of him. If he let himself go limp then he would be more elastic, and would not lose pieces of himself, but then he would be blown away from the dust field.

Thinking quickly Strat clenched tighter and strove for some semblance of temperature control himself. He wasn’t so mighty as the community, but he was able to have some influence on the air around him. He hastily created a simple updraft and then dissipated himself into that wind.

The combined pressure of the community wind and his own updraft spun him up and out in a wide arc, moving him out of their line of fire. As soon as he was clear of them he thrust out his arms, separating half of his essence into a horde of Sub-Nimbos that descended on the front-lines of the community.

A vicious scuffle there commenced. The smaller, individual entities wrestled with one another, trying to overpower the consciousness of their foes. It was a strange battle, one where individual entities might be overpowered and change ranks many times over, an ever-shifting balance of power. Each side understood the basics of front-line tactics, things like giving way in the middle so that the enemy platoons would advance quickly there, then pinching inwards and cutting those platoons off of from the rest of their fellows, where they could be taken over in isolation. That then provided a center of strength that could thrust out at the other side.

And while there were fewer Sub-Nimbos, they had the benefit of sharing a core instinct. Each one’s mind was their own, but each could vaguely sense when their fellow was in distress. It was soon apparent that the battle was evenly matched.

But it was only a distraction. For while it raged on in the front, a portion of Strat and the community remained lurking behind, accumulating more and more mass into themselves. Strat was siphoning in the additional mass as quickly as he could. It resulted in a weaker bonding, and left him with imperfect control over himself, but he ballooned up impressively, far more than the community, who were accumulating at a slower, more controlled rate.

“No more trading,” Strat breathed out to his Subs, then he flung himself over their heads and into the heart of the community.

The Subs shifted their strategy according to their master’s instructions. Instead of trying to overcome the consciousness of their foes they now sought to tear them apart. Casualties would be permanent, the lifeless clumps of severed cloud entities tossed unceremoniously to the side.

Very quickly the community caught on to the change and began to respond in kind. The numbers dwindled quickly on both sides, but more so for the community. Strat’s Sub-parts were willing to fight more recklessly as their demise didn’t really mean anything, given that they were only clones. When each community member was torn to pieces, however, they were gone forever.

Strat wove in and out and around that community, snaking about like a terrible phantom, always in motion. He threw out a crunching fist here, he dispersed a mass of Sub-units there. He took daring gambles, losing much of his mass at one turn and then destroying more of the community at another.

Soon there were no front-lines or behind-lines at all. The two sides were completely entwined, fighting among a soup of friends and foes. Dead corpses were thrown every direction. The number of community members decreased, while the size of the living increased, thus balancing out the balance of the battle. Now they were only a score of souls.

And what of Strat? As his core was cleaved away and replaced with hurriedly siphoned matter he became more and more disjointed. His behavior started to become erratic. Sometimes he would drop entire chunks of himself, sometimes he would shoot out bolts of lightning without intending to, sometimes he would damage himself instead of his foes. He became less and less of a person, and more and more like a wild animal.

The battle shifted accordingly. It was now between the community and this feral beast. They positioned themselves around it and took turns jabbing out at its haunches, cleaving off what corners they could. At first it lashed out reactively to these attacks, but eventually its strikes became truly random. Many were thrust out into useless, empty space, but every now and again one would happen to zero in on a community member. And when it did, those thrusts came with such power and zeal that they could not be denied. The unlucky soul was crushed in an instant.

Two sides went into the war, but only hollow shells would emerge if anything at all.

The only real increase was that of the of dead matter. Everywhere stray puffs of lifeless cloud floated lazily. It got in the way of the battle, dampening blows until it was hastily thrown to the side. Usually to the same side, to a single quadrant of the sky that the battle remain apart from.

As that dead detritus accumulated in one place it began to compress and merge under its own weight. It grew colder and tighter and darker. Every now and again it would twitch when a stray synapse in its dead mass fired at random.

It was already larger than all the surviving community members and Strat combined, and whatever dust was not claimed by those warring sides naturally accumulated on this largest entity. And so its growth became exponential. Dead matter upon dead matter upon dead matter. Higher and higher it rose, becoming a wall extending nearly to the stratosphere. Its face clapped with blanket lightning and its core grew dark as night. Wind began to whip around it, a cold chill bursting out in gusts, and small droplets condensed in the air, hung for a moment, then fell for a final rest on earth.

Even in the heat of their battle the community members could not ignore the chilling bite in the air. As one they turned and witnessed the behemoth raising high, arcing forward, and forming a ceiling above them. Its underside was tumultuous and rumbling, about to burst.

They didn’t even try to run, it wouldn’t have made any difference.

There came a loud crack and then the deluge fell. Millions of raindrops every second, the entire mass giving itself away in a flowing torrent. Each raindrop plunged through the warring clouds like a tiny bullet. Inch-by-inch the entities were blurred and smeared. Though they tried to hold themselves together they could not resist the endless cascade, and eventually all streaked out into a rainfall of their own.

All of the remaining members of the community, all the fractured pieces of Strat, all the corpses, all the idle grains of dust still remaining in the air. All sins were washed away indiscriminately. It took time, the rainfall lasted for hours, but when at last the cleansing was done not a single cloud remained to be seen.

And so the unblocked sun shone brightly on the muddy ground and baked it with its heat. After a little while faint tendrils of steam could be seen lifting off the ground’s surface. Embryonic streams of water vapor lifting into the sky, invisible until some future time when they would condense into clouds.

Perhaps this next time they would manage things better.

*

I mentioned a couple of posts ago how I wanted to bring a monster into Once Among the Clouds. A monster that was formless and amorphous, and also that was a product of the main characters’ flaws. I was, of course, referencing the massive dead cloud that brings about the literal downfall of both warring parties.

Stories often include some tipping point where the momentum of a main character becomes a force unto itself. Up to this point that character might have changed his or her mind and turned from the path. But after this critical point there is no going back, because now gravity has taken hold and the consequences cannot be denied. In a heroic epic this is the point where the protagonist rejects the offer for a last retreat and commits to seeing their adventure to the end, come what may. In a tragedy this is the point where one crosses a line of such depravity that all hope for reclamation is lost.

In Once Among the Clouds I consider that point of hopelessness to be quite early in the story, it is the very moment where Cirri and Strat first decide to take the dust cloud for themselves. The destruction of them all was destined from that single decision.

In my last post I also talked about how even the most original of stories find their roots in the work of others. I personally think that the world and mechanics of Once Among the Clouds are incredibly unique and novel, but as I have just detailed, its characters and themes are as old as anything in literature. Even the ending, where the spent clouds are born anew as water vapor is simply a reinterpretation of the age-old theme of new beginnings. In fact, that metaphor perfectly encapsulates the work of creativity itself: simply giving new skin to old bones.

I’m about ready to close off this current series of stories, but before I do there is one last short piece I want to write. And in that story I want to examine a theme that has been present in all this series: that of the great, undefined something. Instructions Not Included, Cael: Darkness and Light, and now Once Among the Clouds have each featured something large, something unseen, something not understood. This is a common archetype of stories, and I’d like to take a closer look at it. Come back Monday where I’ll do just that, and until then have a wonderful weekend!

Influencing and Inspiring

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Overflowing Personalities)

Some people have essences so strong that they cannot be contained within themselves. Instead bits and pieces of their soul seem to permeate into our own and change us. Charismatic leader compel us to share their vision,  spiritual giants motivate us to adopt their morals, and creative artists inspire us to imitate their ideas.

This transference of the self can even occur with both parties being unaware of it. One does not have to be conscious of the fact to either influence or be influenced. In fact may times the influencing happens even when the two parties never meet, such as when an artist is not appreciated until after their own death. Though they are not present to propel their ideas, the ideas move forward on their own.

To be influenced means to have ones actions directed by another. Sometimes this takes the form of imitating the example of another. Other times it is coming to a personal interpretation of another’s work, and creating something new from that.

 

A New Seed)

Both forms of influence have their value, but in the case of art the second is better. Directly replicating the work of a master is ideal in moral discipleship, but in the arts we we call that plagiarism! Instead the influence of the master artist should be akin to a tree that creates a seed, which then yields a new tree that is its own creation.

Indeed, whenever I read or watch or listen to any work, one of the metrics I measure it by is whether it instigates new thoughts and ideas in me or not. An average creation might entertain me, but a powerful one will bring possibilities to my mind that I had never conceived of.

With this understanding, I would like to offer two simple definitions that encompass my entire philosophy of art.

I consider the word “art” to simply mean the expression of something new. That expression can be in any medium: word or image or sound or any other means.

I consider the word “masterpiece” to mean art that transplants its ideas into the minds of those that consume it. It imbues in the recipient the mind and feelings of the creator, and in so doing it is planting a seed in new soil that can spring up as new creations.

 

Being Receptive)

Of course, the burden of influence does not fall solely on the creator. The greatest symphony cannot move a heart that is dead. Transference of ideas is a mutual effort, and requires both a skilled creator and a skilled receiver.

To get the most out of a story you have to be receptive to the ideas that are coming from it. You have to have a fertile imagination, or else that seed won’t be able to grow. This fact explains why so often the greatest artists are also the greatest audience to others’ art. They take in the work of others, are deeply impacted by it, and from that germinate terrific ideas of their own.

Now our society tends to not like the idea of being “influenced.” We are wary of being duped or brainwashed, and want to assert that we can think for ourselves. This is all well and good, independence is a positive thing.

But we can take it too far and turn it into a sort of fashion: suppressing any thought or feeling that we feel might have originated in another person. Of course if one feels compelled by society’s trends to maintain an image of not being influenced…one is living a humorous oxymoron.

The better balance is to have one’s independence, one’s capacity to think for oneself, and then intentionally choose the influences one will derive inspiration from. Reject those that are shallow, choose the ones that are worthy, and then drink deeply.

 

Combining Sources)

And choose a set of varied sources. Though inspiration comes to us in separate streams our minds are wonderfully designed to combine those individual ideas into one. One of the brain’s core functions is to discover connections, even where no connection was originally intended. Stirring pieces of classical music can therefore be combined with scenes of film and television to great effect, even though that application never occurred to the composers when they wrote them.

Many of our new creations are nothing more than this marrying of separate ideas into one, each half unoriginal, but the fusion being entirely novel. That was my pattern most recently with Once Among the Clouds.

That story has two origins. The first took place when I was reading comic books as a boy. I had an issue of Spider-man, the one where he first meets the Sandman. I was fascinated by how that villain’s form was so fluid. He could reform himself at will, change his density, and grow and shrink as well.

It was an interesting idea in and of itself, but it wasn’t fully fertilized until I made an unexpected connection to it another day, about a decade later, when I was serving a mission in South America. I was in the country of Guyana, which happens to be an incredibly flat piece of land. Not only that, but the country also happens to border the Atlantic Ocean. These combine to provide some of the most stunning cloud formations I have ever seen. They appeared like billowing mountains, stretching from one horizon to the next, constantly combining and dividing with one another at will.

And one day I looked at those clouds and I made the random association of how they were like that fluid character Sandman. And then I started thinking of entire armies of fluid cloud-beings, wrestling for sovereignty in the sky. Which, to my knowledge, is an entirely original invention, though derived from two unoriginal sources.

 

So, in summary, I believe one of the sacred elements of creativity is the way it inspires the same in others. It is a self-perpetuating power, one that ripples through all of humanity. Out from one source, across us all, and then back again, like one species-wide heartbeat.

I believe that everyone has the power to be creative. Perhaps some are born with more of an inclination for it than others, but in the end it is merely a muscle which anyone can exercise. If one wishes to do so, they may begin just by looking for beauty in the creations all about them. See what works resonate with you, what new ideas come to mind from them, and let them move you to make your own.

On Thursday I will post the second half of Once Among the Clouds, where I will combine the cloud-combat that I have already employed with other elements: the wind and rain. Come back then to see how it turns out.

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

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On Thursday I posted the first section of a story which was written in homage of Shane Carruth’s work. Shane is the writer/director/producer/star/composer for two films called Primer and Upstream Color. They are two of the most original stories that I know of, and each pushes the boundaries of imagination in exciting ways.

He has also written a script for a third film called A Topiary, but that one failed to receive funding years ago and will likely never come to fruition. The description of it, though, was that a group of boys would discover a strange machine that allowed them to piece-by-piece begin building mechanical creatures. The formation of these would be based upon a few fundamental rules which would compound and escalate to alarming degrees, eventually resulting in epic battles between the boys and the giant machines they wielded.

This work sounded incredibly exciting to me, particularly due to how Carruth’s previously released films each showed how skilled he was at stacking small and simple concepts into something beautifully complex, like a mosaic. His work follows a very strict pseudo-science, and he authentically captures the delight of methodically combining simple laws to discover new ones.

I basically wanted to take the exact same approach for how I wrote Instructions Not Included. So what I did was reduce the description of A Topiary to the simplest form I could. “A boy discovers a device that allows him to form new creations.” Then I gave it a very simple direction to follow, inspired by the experiences evoked in Carruth’s stories. “The euphoria of discovering new combinations and inventing new things.” And with that I started to write.

Now my own plot does not hit the same beats as any of Carruth’s work, and it does not take place in the same narrative universe. I do not copy the same mechanics he has invented nor the discoveries related to them. I do not even imitate his writing style. In this way Instructions Not Included is inspired by his work, but it is not a recreation of it.

This is one way of writing a work so that it has been influenced by another. In all, I would say there are three clear distinctions of how old work is used to influence a new one.

  1. Using the Essence of a Story
  2. Using the Style of a Story
  3. Using the Plot of a Story

Let’s take a closer look at each of these.

 

Using the Essence)

As I’ve suggested, this approach simply involves looking at what it is that makes a story interesting, and then trying to inject that same interest into a story of your own. Usually these are core concepts that you can capture in a single sentence.

For example we can lift “the Hero’s Journey” as one of the core essences behind Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Matrix, and many, many others. The stories of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot each provide the same essence of “brilliant mystery deduction” yet each is distinctly different in their own right. 1984 and Animal Farm are both “cautionary dystopian tales,” though again quite different in style and overall plot.

Now you may have noticed that this idea of “core essences” just seems to be another way of saying genres. And that is because each of the ones I’ve mentioned so far are old and well-populated, so that they have been cataloged into genre terms. But newer titles that fit into a smaller niche still have an essence, even if they do not have a named genre yet. For example, a few years after Harry Potter came out there followed a number of magical adventures involving teenagers, and there wasn’t a name to refer to them by. They shared an essence, but that was all, until the term “teen fiction” was coined.

 

Using the Style)

But perhaps you don’t just want to just be inspired by the same things that inspired your favorite author. Perhaps you want to write a story that they might have, if they had been given a chance to do so. Imaging, for example, if an artist decided to paint cell phones in the style of Picasso. As Picasso died in 1973 he never got a chance to tackle that subject, and maybe he wouldn’t have interested in them even if he had. Even so, one could wonder how he might have rendered them and try to create the image themselves.

Imitating the style of another author is difficult to do. When Brandon Sanderson took over the Wheel of Time series after the death of Robert Jordan (James Oliver Rigney Jr) the general consensus was that they felt quite different. Style is derived from life experiences and the author’s own individuality. Thus you may put on an act of being like another person, but it is hard to actually think, feel, and be that person. It’s probably impossible.

But that’s not to say that no authors have been successful in imitating a style. One of J. R. R. Tolkien’s motivations for writing The Lord of the Rings was to provide England with a mythology that it was lacking. The Greeks had Zeus and Heracles, the Egyptians had the sun god Ra, the Indians had Rama, the Prince of Fire. Tolkien wanted to gift to Britain its own deep legacy, and so determined to write his work in a mythological style. He would use larger than life settings, slow drama, and core themes of good triumphing over evil. The result is one of the most authentic modern works of mythology to this day. It really feels like it came from an ancient age, though it actually released the same year as Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea!

 

Using the Plot)

I’ve abbreviated this section as making use of another author’s plot, but you could also say to use their characters, world, or creatures. There are not many authors that have tried to create a modern mythos in the way that Tolkien did, but there are many that have tried to invent new stories within the world of Middle Earth, or borrowed from his personifications of elves and dwarfs, or used the idea of destroying an object of immense power.

The thing is that most of these stories leave a lot to be desired, because they actually capture very little of Tolkien’s essence, and they produce very little of their own. I’m not saying that all fan-fiction is bad, just that there is a lot of bad fan-fiction.

More interesting is when an author takes the plot of another work, but then deliberately alters its original essence or replaces it with something entirely new. Ulysses really doesn’t read much like The Odyssey, though they share so many of the same plot points. And while Ulysses lacks that Ancient Grecian flavor, that absence is more than made up for by its being having such a rich James-Joyce-style instead. The Lion King might on paper sound like a recreation of Hamlet, but it really feels much more like a tribal African legend than a medieval drama.

 

Across all three of these forms of imitation there is one consistent principle. In each case the new work is still immensely original. Though you might pay homage to another author, you really want that influence to amount to little more than a footnote on your otherwise totally originally tale. Otherwise you start to stray into the realm of plagiarism instead.

I like to think that I have been firmly in the balance of original work with Instructions Not Included, and I’m very excited to get on with that story. Come back Thursday to see where it is going next!

Following Footsteps

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Children tend to look like their parents. You’ve probably noticed this. Not only that, but they tend to act like them, too. For most of my life I merely attributed that to developmental nurturing, I assumed that people just tended to become like those they spent most of their time around. Undoubtedly that is true to a great degree, but it was remarkable to me when my wife and I first met our son how many of our personality traits and temperaments he already possessed, even before he could have learned them from us through direct experience.

I guess that makes sense. Why would we assume that the only things we pass on through our heredity are the physical attributes like facial structure and eye color? And so I believe that people have both a spark of individuality that is all their own, and then are added upon by all the people that are most important in their lives.

 

Projections)

This is an important consideration in crafting a character for a story. I’m sure you’ve heard that it is that each character in your story must have their own voice, their own characterizations, to be unique and distinct from one another. That is generally good advice, but we also shouldn’t t force them to be different just for the sake of being different. If your story includes two characters that are closely tied to one another, either by family relation, or years of association, it will feel more honest for them to share personality traits that they have projected onto one another. If one character is a descendant of another, ask yourself what characteristics they might have inherited from their forebearers.

There is an excellent example of this in the Lord of the Rings with the characterization of Aragorn. I’m specifically referring to the film adaptation here, as his character is one area where the film improved on the book. Aragorn is supposed to be a king, but he has removed himself from that path because he is haunted by the idea of failure. Why? Well among his ancestry there was a former king who was guilty a great betrayal, one which plunged the world into its current sea of darkness.

Aragorn says of the matter, “The same blood flows in my veins. The same weakness.” It is clear he is not expressing a hypothesis, a mere assumption that weakness probably exists in him, rather the conviction in his voice suggests that he has personally had moments of being weak, of failing, of shunning his duty. And when in his introspection he has tried to identify why he is so flawed he has recognized this as his inheritance from his ancestor. Thus he fears making the same mistakes as those that went before, and ironically, it is in his running from his title that he self-fulfills his own fears of failing to measure up. He makes himself more into the image of his forefather by trying to avoid that very thing.

This is a wonderfully rich character, and all by delving into some soulful examinations on what has made this man and who it was that did that making.

 

Second Parents)

Of course not all those that mold us are of our direct lineage. In our infancy and early childhood our parents and other direct family members are undoubtedly our greatest influence, but as we venture out into the world those initial personality traits start to get bent my new interactions. We have our mentors and friends, neighbors and coworkers. All of them rub off on us and can even forever alter the character we first began as. For better and for worse.

Typically when we use expressions like “he was a second father to me” or “she took me in like I was her own child” we often are referring to this sort of influence. We perceive that some person has remade us to be more like they are, and we signify this by assigning them a secondary-parent title. I’m not sure if there is anyone who doesn’t have these remaking characters in their lives, and it is a fascinating phenomenon to draw on in our stories.

In Les Miserables we have a harsh and fearful man in the form of Jean Valjean. He is a former convict and under the strict French regime he will always be a convict. Born in poverty and defined by his background to never amount to much. He fills that role well, even going so far as to beat and rob a priest whose only crime was showing him kindness.

When that priest responds to that cruelty with only greater kindness Jean Valjean is deeply moved and ultimately transformed. He has a moment of conflict between this new influence and this new impressions that has been made on him, then he ultimately allows himself to be remade in the likeness of that priest. He becomes devout, self-sacrificing, and generous, completely unrecognizable from the man of his origins.

 

Competing Voices)

It is very clever of Jean Valjean to have that moment of conflict between the two voices within him. After all, we do not typically emulate only one single persona in our lives either. We are mixed beings with a plethora of influences chattering within us. Some people even describe how those voices take the actual sound of a person that they know: a mother, a friend, a coworker. Those voices might disagree with each other, even argue. When a decision is difficult to make, we might remain at a standstill until we are able to identify which of all these competing voices really represents our own true self. Not all influences are good, after all, and at some point we have to prune ourselves to the person we really want to be.

Where do we find examples of this in stories? Actually we find them once more with Aragorn and Jean Valjean.

Aragorn is afraid of his heritage and own personal weakness. However that is not all that defines him. One mentor’s voice, that of Elrond, urges him to “Put aside the ranger. Become who you were born to be.” Elrond’s advice is able to strike a chord in Aragon, in no small part due to the fact that Elrond is literally a second father to him. When Aragorn’s birth father died it was Elrond who raised him as a son, and so has imprinted in the man a sense of wisdom and power. This is actually an element of the character that is better defined in the book than in the film, and is critical to understanding how and why Aragon is able to answer that call and evolve into something greater.

Jean Valjean, meanwhile, is not entirely in the clear after defeats his previous persona and turns over a new life. Throughout the rest of the tale he is haunted by the cruel guard that was set over him during his many years in prison: Javert. Javert is a manifestation of the voice in Jean Valjean that would pull him back to his former self, who tells him he can never be anything more than a convict. Javert tries to persuade Jean Valjean of this many times, and at times it is clear that Valjean is almost convinced by his arguments. It is only by constantly reaffirming his newness of soul that Valjean is able to hold onto his better life until the very end.

 

In conclusion, as we define the characters of our stories we ought to consider not only how they behave but also why they do so. What was their personality originally? How was that personality built on through nurturing influence? How was that then challenged by external influences? How are they, in turn, influencing others? For indeed, we cannot view influence as flowing one way only.

Parents, mentors, and friends may mold a man or woman, but they will also be molded in turn by that same individual. That’s a notion that deserves a little more elaboration, and on Thursday I will post a story that highlights this concept. Where my previous story gave a tragic tale of a father unable to connect with his son, this next one will portray a father who successfully gives to his child, but also receives from him as well. I hope to see you then.