31 May 2015

Not quite Forgotten: Todd Downing and Mexico

The forces of Evil have always been present in this strange country of Mexico, watered though it has been by the blood of saints.
                                                          Todd Downing 
                                                          Vultures in the Sky 

       The “golden ages” of both mysteries and Mexico are pretty much behind us.

       As to mysteries, diligent readers can still, at times, stumble onto the occasional forgotten trove of golden age “fair play” mysteries, where the plotting is stylish, the murders are relatively free of gore, and where all of the clues are handed to us yet we still reach the last page (or, perhaps, the penultimate page) befuddled. But today these are rare finds indeed. Agatha Christie remains in print, almost single handedly defying Professor Francis Nevin’s rule that the books die with the author. But most of the other golden age mystery volumes that once populated the library mystery shelves have, along with those authors, long since disappeared. 
Todd Downing pictured
on the cover of Clues and
Corpses by Curtis Evans
     Every once in a while, however, a surprise still drops into our laps. This recently happened to me when I read about the works of Todd Downing.  I confess that I had never heard of Downing, much less forgotten him, when I stumbled onto a Facebook post by mystery buff Curtis Evans sometime back reporting that Downing’s mystery novels had recently been re-issued. Evans, as it turns out, is a true Todd Downing scholar, and has written extensively concerning his works.  Downing, as Evans reported, had his heyday in the 1930s when he wrote a series of “fair play” mysteries usually featuring his recurring crime solver Hugh Rennert, a United States Customs Service agent. Rennert, in some respects, is like my old friend Ellery Queen. Both have a knack of invariably finding themselves dropped into a group of people one of whom is about to be murdered. But unlike Ellery, Rennert’s problems of deduction all involve the same setting: 1930s Mexico.

      Based on Curtis Evans’ Facebook recommendation I promptly ordered Downing’s Vultures in the Sky from Amazon. (An added bonus -- Vultures begins with a biographic sketch of Todd Downing written by Evans.)

       Vultures is set on the Aztec Eagle, the Mexican train that for many decades provided daily rail service between Nuevo Laredo and Mexico City. The novel’s sense of claustrophobia and mounting terror is heightened by the constricted setting of the first class accomodation of the Aztec Eagle as it meanders its way along its 1,100 mile day-and-a-half journey from the Mexican border to the capital. Think of Vultures in the Sky as a sort of Mexican analog to Murder on the Orient Express. And from the moment I began reading I knew that I was on familiar ground.   

       So -- why did Vultures speak personally to me? Well, although I am still young enough (thankfully!) not to have experienced Todd Downing’s Mexico of the 1930s, I am very familiar with the Aztec Eagle. It is the same train that I rode, on my own, during the summers of 1967 and 1968 -- my 17th and 18th years. (What were my parents thinking? I would have locked my kids in their rooms if they had proposed undertaking such an unchaperoned adventure in their teens.) 

My (ancient!) copy of
Mexico on 5 Dollars a Day
       Mexico was in a sleepy national siesta between Downing’s 1930s and my 1960s. Very little, including the trains, seemed to change. Throughout those years travelers moving south from the border depended on the Aztec Eagle, or more properly, La Aguila Azteca, the pride of Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México.  The train at one point in the early 1950s was made up of rail coaches specifically built in Switzerland for this flagship service, but those cars, due to a design defect, proved unreliable and were eventually replaced with the 1930s retired rolling stock from the New York Central Line that was first used in the 1930s. But for that one interlude, the same New York Central rolling stock therefore was in continuous use on the Mexican rail line for over forty years. So the cars comprising the train I traveled on in 1967 and 1968 were the same ones that provided the setting for Vultures in the Sky

       My teenage adventures in Mexico were momentous for me in many respects; so much so that I could never bring myself to part with the guidebook that was my bible throughout my five weeks of riding the rails each of those summers -- Mexico on 5 Dollars a Day, by John Wilcock. Here, in words that could have been taken from Vultures in the Sky, is the description of the Aztec Eagle from pages 22 and 23 of the 1966 edition of 5 Dollars a Day:

       The Mexican Railroad’s pride and joy is the glittering Aztec Eagle, which leaves the border town of Nuevo Laredo at 6:15 p.m. daily. Once you have boarded this and sat down to dinner, all kinds of exciting things happen. Take a look at the railroad company’s own brochure:
       “During your trip south, from an easy chair in the lounge, you may watch the dramatic panorama of Mexico unfold. On either side of the train stretch desert plains studded with dwarf and giant cacti. Suddenly, as though spun round on a revolving stage, the landscape changes to tree-dotted valleys. The train passes the Tropic of Cancer. Inside the air-conditioned cars there is no indication that the train has entered tropic territory.
       The train trip in itself is an introduction to Mexico -- to its rich agricultural areas, cacti-covered desert stretches, valleys and highlands. At times the train winds over giddy peaks, clings to sheer rock walls, looks down into steep ravines, crosses mineral-laden land, rushing mountain streams and great irrigated fields. Along the way there are small, typical Indian villages of adobe huts, processions of burros laden for market, Indian families dressed in regional clothes, serapes and rebozos. Whenever the train stops, they gather outside the cars offering for sale food, fruits, candy, drinks, bright woven basketry, serapes and other local handicrafts.” 
Typical Pullman Sleeper Car
       The Aztec Eagle that Todd Downing knew in the mid-1930s and the train I rode in the late 1960s was comprised of numerous second class cars and then, at the end, a fleet of first class accommodations. The first class cars, which were inaccessible to the second class passengers, included sleepers (both bedrooms and cars containing those Pullman seats that folded into bunks at night, remembered in the United States only from movies), a diner with a tuxedo maitre d', a club car, and a separate observation lounge car at the end of the train, which featured an elegant rounded art deco observation area where first class passengers could watch the track streaming out behind the train as we barreled through the deserts, jungles, and mountains of Mexico. 

Interior of typical Observation car
       The cost for all of this if you traveled first class? Well, according to Mexico on 5 Dollars a Day, (and consistent with my penciled expenses still tabulated in the margins) in the summers of 1967 and 1968 I shelled out 135 pesos for the trip. That worked out to $10.10. Of course, I had to pay for meals. If memory serves the steak dinner, accompanied by a glass of wine, was $2.30. A pre-dinner scotch highball (what fun! I was still years away from 21!) set me back 28 cents. 

The observation car at the
end of the Aztec Eagle
       Although The Aztec Eagle had staked its claim as flagship, a strong argument could be made for the proposition that that honor should at least be shared with the nightly train from Mexico City to Guadalajara. That train, all first class, was comprised of 18 Pullman sleepers, two diners, two club cars and two observation lounges. The train was so long that it left Mexico City’s Buena Vista station nightly in two sections, each propelled by its own set of engines. The trip itself was leisurely -- the train left at 8:20 each evening, and arrived in Guadalajara (under 300 miles to the north west) at 9:00 a.m. the next morning. Accommodations on the train sold out almost every trip -- prospective passengers had to reserve their tickets days in advance. The cost? According to Mexico on 5 Dollars a Day I paid around $6.00 to travel first class between Guadalajara and Mexico City. 

       It is a hard battle for any series of golden age mysteries to remain in publication (almost as hard as it has been for rail passenger service to survive). Mysteries run the risk of becoming dated, and the tastes of the reading public is apt to change. But that battle likely was a particularly difficult one for Todd Downing’s series, I suspect, since the series is set in the unfamiliar Mexico of his era.  That Mexico has simply ceased to exist. That era, and the Mexican trains as well, are gone. 

       When I was a child, before I discovered Mexican rail transporation, my father’s favorite vacation was a driving trip from St. Louis, Missouri (our home) to Mexico City. Part of that drive was along Mexico’s Route 101, which stretches from Matamoros, Mexico (across the Rio Grande from Brownsville) to Ciudad Victoria. One should question our sanity in undertaking this 3,400 mile round trip in the constraints of a two week vacation back then, but there is no question at all as to the the lack of sanity of someone attempting a road trip through central Mexico today.  And that is particularly the case along Route 101.  The Washington Post has this to say about present conditions along that highway: 
Mexico Route 101 -- The Highway of Death
       Highway 101 through the border state of Tamaulipas is empty now — a spooky, forlorn, potentially perilous journey, where travelers join in self-defensive convoys and race down the four-lane road at 90 miles per hour, stopping for nothing, and nobody ever drives at night.
        . . . .
       As rumors spread that psychotic kidnappers were dragging passengers off buses and as authorities found mass graves piled with scores of bodies, people began calling this corridor “the highway of death” or “the devil’s road.”  
     For a fictionalized (but I suspect accurate) view of what traveling through central Mexico is like today, try Michael Gruber’s latest book, The Return, and compare the horrors depicted there with the Mexico that I knew and that is depicted in Vultures in the Sky.  As The Washington Post also reported, even convoys traveling together down “the devil’s road” -- the stretch my family rolled along in our station wagon -- are not safe. Several years ago one such convoy failed to arrive in Ciudad Victoria. The charred bodies of 145 drivers and passengers were eventually found by the Mexican police in a desert fire pit. Even numbers did not buy safety, and facing a convoy meant nothing to the Mexican drug cartel.

       I read these news reports of current Mexican horrors, I remember the Mexico that I traveled through as a child with my family, and that I later traveled through alone as a teenager, and I am bewildered and saddened by the change that 50 years has wrought. 

       The Aztec Eagle and the nightly train from Mexico City to Guadalajara, in any event, are long gone. Except for two tourist lines -- one servicing the Copper Canyon, another running to and from a popular tequila distillery -- all Mexican inter-city passenger service is currently a thing of the past.  All of the other Mexican passenger trains were discontinued in 1995. We can't even blame the drug trade for this.  The decision pre-dated much of Mexico’s current descent into warring drug cartels. 

       For several years I taught a graduate course for the University of Denver that traced the history of transportation regulation in the United States. The gentleman who taught the course immediately following mine was an official of Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México. While visiting with him once I asked him about Mexico’s 1995 decision to abandon its popular passenger rail service and his response was a simple one: The railroad realized it could make more profit running one full boxcar of cargo between Mexico City and Guadalajara than it could running that 50 car first class passenger service between those two cities. 

       One could, of course, question that logic. Rail passenger service is subsidized virtually everywhere, including in the United States. The need for the service is not, necessarily, susceptible to a strict profit and loss analysis. It also requires a balancing of public transportation needs. But all of that is a different issue for a different article. The point here is also a simple one: the Mexico that Todd Downing knew in the 1930s, and that I knew in the 1960s, including The Aztec Eagle, is no more. Segun dicen en español -- Ya se fue. 

       But, then again, nothing stands still. Where we are today is not, necessarily, where we will be tomorrow. And sometimes you might, if lucky, get to go home again. Or, for our purposes, perhaps back to Mexico. 

High Speed Rail:  Still an Option for Mexico?
       Todd Downing’s books are already back, re-published in quality paper editions by Coachwhip Publications. And there may still be hope for a re-birth of Mexico as well. While the jury is still out on the outcome of the wars against the Mexican drug cartels that have laid siege over central Mexico, even with that there is at least some hope and some progress.

      And a renewed Mexican passenger rail system is also not beyond the realm of hope. The first fitful step -- and it would have been an enormous one -- has been the attempt by the Mexican government to build a high speed inter-city passenger rail system connecting the cities of Mexico.   In 2014 Mexico entered into a contract with a Chinese consortium to construct such a line but, in light of budgetary problems and continuing governmental scandals, the project was put on indefinite hold this past February. When and if that services is finally begun it is estimated that the trip from Mexico City to Guadalajara (that 12 hours overnight trip that I took as a teenager) would then take just over two hours.

       Two hours!  That’s hardly enough time to settle into your seat with a highball and a good Todd Downing mystery.

30 May 2015

Rooting for the Bad Guy

A few days ago I found myself in an unusual situation. I was between books (I'd just finished reading one and hadn't yet started another), I was between stories (I'd just finished writing a mystery that I've since submitted and I hadn't yet started writing another), and I--for once--didn't have anything new from Netflix to plug into the DVD player. Since I was too lazy to move from my recliner and wasn't in the mood for Dancing With the Stars (I can't recall ever being in the mood for Dancing With the Stars), I fired up Apple TV and began looking for something to stream.
Atticus Finch Has Left the Building

What I found was Payback, a 1999 movie with Mel Gibson. I remembered watching it years ago, and remembered it mainly because he played a thief named Porter, a renaming of the "Parker" character created by the late Donald Westlake. This movie was in fact a remake of the 1967 film Point Blank, with Lee Marvin, which was adapted from Westlake's novel The Hunter. Anyhow, something like that sounded just right for both my temperament and my timeframe, that night. I remembered something else about the appropriately-titled Payback, too: its logline (the little teaser phrase that had appeared on the movie posters and the DVD boxes) was "Get ready to root for the bad guy."

Root for him I did. The casting helped, of course. Mel Gibson, like James Garner and Tom Selleck and Steve McQueen and Burt Reynolds and George Clooney and Paul Newman and a very few others, is hard to root against--even when he's an outlaw and a killer. Beyond that, though, I found myself wondering if there might be a lesson in the plot, for mystery/crime writers. It seems that's it's okay for your protagonist to be a bad guy as long as (1) he has some kind of personal code of honor regarding right and wrong and (2) there are others in the story who are even worse than he is. Hoping that your readers will sympathize with your hero/heroine just because he/she is the lesser of the evils would appear to be a risky business, but it seems to work. Of the four short stories I have coming out soon (EQMM, Crimespree, The Saturday Evening Post, and an anthology), all four feature criminals as the main characters--and I think they were even more fun to write than if they'd had regular law-abiding protagonists.

The Good, the Bad, and the Questionable

As you might've expected, I've put together a list of some unlikely heroes that movie and TV audiences pulled for:

- Tony Soprano
- Michael Corleone and family
- Bonnie and Clyde
- Thelma and Louise
- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
- Chili Palmer, Get Shorty
- Henry Hill, Goodfellas
- Vincent Vega, Pulp Fiction
- The cat people in Cat People
- Thomas Crown
- Danny Ocean
- Hud Bannon
- Cool Hand Luke Jackson
- Cat Ballou
- Walter White, Breaking Bad
- Verbal Kint (Keyser Soze), The Usual Suspects
- Most characters in any Quentin Tarantino film
- Most characters in any adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel
- Marion Crane, Psycho
- Fast Eddie Felson, The Hustler
- Abby Marty, Blood Simple
- Stuntman Mike, Death Proof
- The Man With No Name, Sergio Leone's westerns
- Jaime Lannister, Game of Thrones
- Those trying to get away in The Getaway
- Pete "Maverick" Mitchell, Top Gun
- Red and Andy, The Shawshank Redemption
- The three escapees in O Brother, Where Art Thou?
- The two stingers in The Sting
- William Munny, Unforgiven
- Django, chained or unchained
- Pike Bishop and his Wild Bunch
- Nancy Botwin, Weeds
- Frank Underwood, House of Cards
- The heated bodies in Body Heat
- Snake Plissken, Escape From New York
- Frank Morris, Escape From Alcatraz
- Ben Wade, 3:10 to Yuma
- Nucky Thompson, Boardwalk Empire

Two questions. First, can you think of any good "bad" characters that I missed? (I intentionally left out borderliners like Han Solo, Shane, Ferris Bueller on his day off, etc., as well as otherwise good folks who went bonkers like Norman Bates and Jack Torrance and Annie Wilkes. And I know you're probably saying to yourself that Maverick in Top Gun wasn't really a bad guy. You're right, he wasn't--but he was an unlikely hero for that situation. He was a reckless, Smokey-and-the-Bandit troublemaker, a loose cannon rolling around on the deck, and that's usually not the kind of guy you want piloting an F-14.)

Second question. Do you as writers sometimes use bad guys as your protagonists? If so, why? If not, why not? I read somewhere that Lawrence Block had a few misgivings before launching both his Bernie Rhodenbarr (burglar) series and his Keller (hit man) series--probably because of how hard it would be to make those protags likable and acceptable to the reader. Thankfully, he did it anyway.

The Rise of the Anti-Hero

I haven't counted them up, but I figure at least ten percent of my short stories have featured lawbreakers, or at least lawbenders, as the main characters. Almost any heist story or revenge story relies on that, and I've done a lot of both. In that regard, I'm always comforted by the old saying that law and justice are two different things. I think readers will sometimes accept and forgive illegal behavior if it's done for the greater good and if the end justifies the means. That's probably the sole reasoning behind the series Dexter, as well as the reason for its success.

The thing is, even when our heroes are basically good men and women, they're rarely perfect. Rick Blaine was an alcoholic, Inspector Clouseau an idiot, James Bond a stone killer, Sherlock Holmes a drug addict, Randall McMurphy a nutcase, Conan a barbarian. In our real lives we try to choose as our friends people who are sane and kind and honest and decent; in our fictional creations we (writers) try to choose as our characters people who are not. As Nicolas Cage said to Holly Hunter in Raising Arizona, this ain't Ozzie and Harriet.

Another quote. In an online article called "The Rise of the Anti-Hero," pop-culture enthusiast Jonathan Michael said, "Perhaps it's the darkness that reels us in, because we relate to the darkness. But even so, we hope for the light."

Tell that to Hannibal Lecter.

29 May 2015

The Old Kansas City Mafia

When people think of the mafia, they usually have a mental picture of Italian gangsters operating in Chicago or some major East Coast city, but in fact, the mafia sprang up wherever they thought they could make a dollar. In popular media, movies such as The Untouchables focused on the old Chicago mob, The Godfather on New York and Las Vegas, and the TV series The Sopranos on New Jersey. But, there was also a deeply entrenched branch of the mafia based in Kansas City.
In 1921, the DiGiovanni brothers, Joseph and Peter fled their homeland of Sicily. Finally settling in the north end of Kansas City, they set up their criminal enterprises which would later make them the founding fathers of the Kansas City mafia. Other criminal entrepreneurs in the north end at the time were Big Jim Balestrere (who would go on to oppose the rise to power of one Nick Civella) and Joe Lusco. With the advent of Prohibition, the competitive factions in the north end decided to work together. They termed their coalition as The Outfit. Peter DiGiovanni became known on the street as Sugarhouse Pete. His brother, Joseph DiGiovanni, a leader of the old Black Hand, acquired the nickname of Scarface after his face became disfigured when he tried to burn down a warehouse during the Prohibition years. Joe denied this event, instead claiming that it was due to a lamp accident in his home. Either way, his face was scarred for life.

When the organization expanded, John Lanzia, AKA Brother John, took over leadership and was given free rein by Tom Pendergrast, head of The Pendergrast Machine. At the time, The Machine controlled the local government and made Kansas City an "open" town. No alcohol arrests were allowed or made inside the city limits.

With the end of Prohibition in 1933, the gangsters continued with their other rackets, but also began shaking down bars for protection money. John Lanzia got assassinated in July 1934 and the game of musical chairs began for succession. Charles "Charlie the Wop" Carrollo, the current underboss, stepped up to the throne, but then he was also suspected of having created his own opening for that position by having ordered the killing of Lanzia. In 1939, Charlie the Wop took a fall for tax evasion and his underboss, Charles Binaggio, became the head man. Binaggio took the family into the area of labor racketeering. With his help, Forest Smith became the governor of Missouri in 1948. They had a lock on politics, but somewhere down the line, Binaggio made the national commission of mafia nervous. They had him whacked in 1950. Three years later, his successor, Anthony Grizzo, expired from heart attack. Seems that assassination, stress and law enforcement made for a constant change in leadership.

Next up in the rotating chair was Giuseppe Nicoli Civella, who became the public face of the KC family and the first boss to represent the Americanized version of the mafia. Big Jim Balestrere is alleged to have made a few assassination attempts on Civella's life, but graciously stepped aside when he saw Nick Civella had the backing of higher ups. Nick went on to make alliances with several mafia families in other cities and thus raised his own mafia family to greater importance. A witness identified Nick as being in the area of the infamous Appalachin meeting of top gangsters, but he was not among those arrested. He reigned for thirty years before his passing in 1983. However, being the CEO of the Kansas City branch of a large criminal organization did have its downside. Nick ultimately found himself the recipient of a couple of federal vacations. From 1979 until 1983, his brother Carl AKA Corky, took over as acting boss while Nick sat in the grey bar hotel.

Nick Civella's first federal fall came from gambling charges concerning the 1970 Super Bowl in which he lost about $40,000 and some of his freedom. His second go-down was for bribery. His third federal indictment led to material for a hit movie, Casino, starring Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci. (The movie character of Vincent Borelli is loosely based on Nick Civella.)  Turns out the Feebs were wiretapping the phone lines of various alleged mobsters and their Kansas City associates when they stumbled over something new. Joe Agusto, head of Tropicana's Follies Bergere Show, was skimming money from the casino and then sending the cash to Nick in Kansas City, Joseph Aiuppa in Chicago, plus to mobsters in Cleveland and Milwaukee. Subsequent indictments and convictions became the background and story for the movie . In the end, the FBI's Operation Strawman showed how high the Kansas City mafia had reached for prominence in the criminal world. Nick died before he could go to trial on this indictment.

Side Note: I worked Kansas City during 1971-74 and had the pleasure of meeting one of the agents who surreptitiously entered some of the buildings owned by local mafia members and installed listening devices on the inside.

28 May 2015

Muscling Your Way Back Into Your Narrative

by Brian Thornton

 We've all been there–going great guns on a project, and then, suddenly REAL LIFE strikes, and drags you (frequently kicking and screaming) out of your narrative, and by the time you've got REAL LIFE tamed and wrestled to the ground, hog-tied and branded, your head's been out of the story for so long you're having trouble picking up where you left off.

After all, it's not a pensieve and we're not all Harry Potter, able to dip our face in it and drop right into the middle of the story.

So what to do in such an instance.

I've recently found myself on the horns of just such a dilemma, so I did what any evolved, 21st century writer does: I crowdsourced it by putting the question out to my Facebook writer friends earlier today.

And I have to say, I was both pleased and heartened by the response, not just from writer friends, but from non-writers as well. So I thought I'd share the responses here.

See below, and if you feel like weighing in with some free advice or just how this reminds you of this or that funny story, please feel free to drop a response into our comments section.

And how, without further ado, here they are:

"Not a writer, but i have an idea. when i read i put myself in the story, i become one of the characters. at the very least, in my mind i am in the room with them. try reading your story from the view point of one of the characters. it might put you back into where the story was headed. or, it might just show you a different direction to take it." 

"This happens to me a lot. I just begin to rewrite it from word one. I don't even consider moving forward for a day or two."

"Not a (fiction) writer, but I would think the process might be similar to reading the story. If there's a long break between reads in the middle of the book, I sometimes have to go back and reread all or a major part, just to get the thread of the book back in my brain. Perhaps going back and re-reading what you wrote will pull you completely through the story you've written, and re-remind you of where you were going with it...."

"I review my notes and outline then I edit the last few things I wrote. I have to do that all the time!"

"Once when I was stuck I wrote a "behind the scenes" scene of my characters talking about me, bitching about the long wait, complaining about plot holes and where they wanted their character arcs to go. It was fun and was, uh, scary what obnoxious opinions they had of me. Good luck!"

"Hire Bob Towne or Johnny Milius for the rewrite, while I grab a gimlet or six at the Brown Derby with Diane Keaton and Jackie Nicholson, then hit the links for a quick eight with Ronnie Reagan. At least that's what I'd do if I were Bob Evans."

"Read and re-read it until I finally get back in the groove."

"Plant ass in chair. Type."

"May have to go in seclusion for inspiration."

"Tough spot. Was recently there myself. But yeah, as has been stated, ass in chair, start typing. It also helped me to review my plot notes, do a re-read and reattach myself to the feelings that got me started in the first place. Ask yourself: Why did I start this mad scheme way back when?"

"I agree---re-read, that's what I did after I brought my old, old word processor online and looked to see if there were any stories I could salvage!"

"Re-read from the beginning. Then plant your ass in the chair and type. You can have some coffee."

"Write a tangent with the characters doing something that is not plot related. Kind of like letting school kids get a recess. It might get you back into the groove and you might get a short story out of it."

"As someone said, reread from the beginning or some other interesting spot. How about mood music?"

"I have to read it from the beginning, typically in one sitting with a notebook handy to make notes. Sometimes I forget what my characters have been up to! ... I just read the posts above mine: Glad to know that retracing the plot from the beginning is something you all do as well!"

"Hemingway said never leave off at the end (of a scene or chapter). Always start up more action then go right to it. Works for me. So does re-reading previously written section."

"I spend a few days being really cranky and kinda sneaking back up on it..."

"Whenever you leave your thread, jot a note of how to reframe and focus in. Survival tactic for to-do lists, dissertations, homework, vacation planning, blah, blah."

"I go back and re-read. If it's been a few days, I go back a few chapters. If it's been a while, I start from the top and read through."

There you have it, folks. The fruit of my crowdsourcing on this issue. Again, if you feel like being heard on the subject, please do leave a comment of your own.

Tune in two weeks from now to see which approaches worked for me, and which didn't. And a sincere thank you to all of my Facebook homies who chimed in with helpful l suggestions!