January 24, 2007

Cartooning Dean Bridgers (Part 1 of 2)

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Never having been a student at the University of Alabama in Birmingham's School of Public Health, I never knew that school's late Dean, Dr. William F. Bridgers. Now I feel like I do, having been asked to design cover art for a bound compilation of his "reflections and recollections" that was reprinted this month under the title Yellow Dog Tales of a Late Century Southern Liberal Geezer.
Dr. Bridgers
It was clear once I began reading Dr. Bridgers' writings, though, that I would have enjoyed knowing him if I had had the opportunity. Others obviously did: fond memories of the man filled the room at a fundraiser for the Bill and Judy Bridgers Scholarship Fund that I attended during last week's trip to Birmingham.

Drawing a cover for his book presented challenges, though. The guy would pretty much have to be front and center, since his ruminations were the book's raison d'être. But how do you draw a cartoon version of a man you never laid eyes on?

I'll get to that tomorrow, in the second part of this exercise in cartooning shop talk. First I had to figure out what my drawing was going to look like. Dr. Bridgers would be in the middle of — of what?

I took my cue from the book's title. I mean, a book called Yellow Dog Tales has gotta have dogs on the front, right? Not brown ones or black-and-white spotted ones; yellow ones. But what exactly is a "yellow dog" anyway? And how did that variety of canine get tethered to some people's political leanings?

A little Googling led me to the Yellow Dog Democrat web site, where all things became clear. Way back in 1928 a Democratic Senator named Tom Heflin committed the unpardonable crime of supporting Republican Herbert Hoover for President. According to legend, party loyalists denounced Heflin's offense by reaffirming their own party loyalty. "I'd vote for a yellow dog if he ran on the Democratic ticket," they angrily proclaimed, and a super-partisan archetype was born.

As for the real-world dogs hijacked by the term, I learned from the Internet that an alternative name for a "yellow dog" is "Carolina dogs." Here's what such beasts typically look like.

Above: Carolina dogs found roaming on the Web

They're not really all that yellow, you may notice. But reality shmeality! I for sure would be "yellowing them up" or my drawing, just to reinforce their connection to the book's title.

Now how could I gather these critters into an entertaining picture also featuring a one-time university dean given to composing written ruminations about whatever was going on in the world, from health care reform to Bill Clinton's dalliance with one Ms. Lewinsky?

Pretty soon I found myself riffing on the classic image of dogs who helpfully bring slippers and/or the morning paper to their grateful masters.

I sketched out that image roughly and submitted it to my clients for approval. In my version of the familiar scene, the "yellow dogs" surrounding Dr. Bridgers would be supplying him with subject matter for his essays, like a newspaper and family album. I figured I would add additional clippings if the sketch got approved — which it did.

Come back tomorrow for a further description of how UAB's much-admired Bill Bridgers was turned into a 'toon.

January 10, 2007

Party Time in Birmingham

It's always fun to put together self-promotional montages like the one above, in which assorted characters from odd corners of my professional life come creeping out of the woodwork to party.

In times past a lot of rubber cement and X-Acto knifeplay would have been required to create a graphic like this one, and even so the slightly frayed edges of the hand-trimmed images would remain apparent to anyone chosing to peer closely at the finished assemblage. But everything has been made easier and cleaner with the advent of magic software like Photoshop.

(And I would say that even if Adobe Systems, the makers of Photoshop, hadn't been dominant among my freelance clients for the last half-year.)

If all goes well and enough page space is available, this graphic will accompany an interview with me that's set to run in an upcoming issue of Birmingham Weekly, for whom I did that weird Santa Claus cover art I told you about a few blog entries ago.

What occasions that print interview (as well as a radio interview that will be taped on January 18 on WBMG's arts program Tapestry) is the trip to Birmingham I'll be making next week. By virtue of having drawn cover art this fall for UAB Public Health magazine, I'm being given the royal treatment at a reception being thrown by the University of Alabama School of Public Health on the 18th.

UAB has even made posters out of my cover art. Signed copies of these will be available for sale at the reception to raise money for the Bill and Judy Bridgers Scholarship Fund.

January 8, 2007

Two Portraits

Once in a blue moon an opportunity arises for me to do a portrait. (I mean, one that other people besides Eddie see.) A couple of those blue-moon occasions have arisen since we relocated to New England.
The subject of the drawing above (shown next to the snapshot it's based on) is my longtime friend Nicky Heron. It's included in a group exhibit called "Here's Looking At You" that features portraits of Berkshire personalities by Berkshire artists and is currently on display at Gallery 51 in North Adams. I call the drawing "Nicky In The Kitchen."

Nicky and I first crossed paths as fellow participants (albeit from slightly different collegiate generations) in the Birmingham-Southern College Theatre. After years thereafter spent geographically separated and only barely in touch, we've recently found ourselves neighbors again here in the Berkshires. She and her husband Jason Brown are both blessed with too many talents to enumerate, but prominent among their present family enterprises is BMA Studios, under whose auspices audio books like their most recent offering, Henry James's The Aspern Papers, are lovingly produced out of their impressive basement sound studio in Monterey.

When I first met Nicky she was playing a winsome prostitute named Karen in a one-act play called "The Old Man Dies" that I had written while still an undergraduate. Brief aside: My most influential mentor, BSC's one-time Drama Department chairman Arnold Powell, once remarked in response to a couple of my scripts that student playwrights who have never come close to knowing an actual flesh-and-blood prostitute seem irresistibly driven to populate their plays with them. Point taken.

Anyway, my college days were behind me when Cheryl Thacker (another longtime friend from college, Cheryl has since distinguished herself as a professional lighting designer) chose to direct "The Old Man Dies" as her Director's Lab student project. Naturally, I returned from New York to see it the result.

My eyes mist up when I recall what a cluster of old friends joined forces to mount that little workshop production in 1969. Of course, since they were my friends and not yours, I won't demand that your eyes get similarly misty. But take my word for it, if you had known this crowd you'd be misting up right along with me.

Drawing Nicky's portrait was a perfect way to celebrate her re-emergence as part of my present life. And there's been an interesting sidebar to our catch-up conversations: I had somehow missed learning previously that Nicky's grandfather, the formidably named Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, was a founder of DC Comics, under whose Paradox Press imprint my graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby was published. The family lore about Nicky's granddad reveals a larger-than-life historical personage whose exploits ranged well beyond the comics realm. A fascinating biography of this guy is obviously waiting to be written.


I started this blog entry by referencing two portraits I've done lately, so I'll quickly share the second one with you before I go (see below). Its subject, Will Eisner, will be familiar to any of you who have arrived at this blog because of an interest in comics. Much written about and widely admired, Eisner was a giant of the sequential art medium who was still producing new and exciting works when death finally wrestled him away from his drawing board at the age of 87.

Will was a professional colleague with whom I chatted, talked shop, and occasionally argued (always amicably) at the comics cons and conferences where our paths crossed. When he passed away last year, I contributed the drawing below to an issue of Comic Book Artist magazine that was devoted to Eisner tributes.

January 5, 2007

My Winding Road's Spanish Detour

Before I leave the topic of Stuck Rubber Baby (see my previous blog entry), I should thank the Spanish comics newsmagazine Dolmen for devoting more than four pages of its October issue (#129) to a nicely-done print adaptation of "The Long and Winding Stuck Rubber Road."

That's the web feature you'll find elsewhere on this site that chronicles my graphic novel's four-year journey from initial concept to published form.

Vicente Garcia, Dolmen's editor, did the translation himself. I'm not able to read a word of it, of course, but I choose to believe that he accomplished his task magnificently, since everything about Dolmen seems to be done classily, as best a non-Spanish-speaker can tell.

I appreciate the spotlight, Vicente.

December 26, 2006

Toland Goes To College

From time to time I receive email from college teachers who are using my graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby as a classroom text. Sometimes their students write me, too.

This sort of attention is hugely gratifying, naturally, as it would be for any author who hasn't become jaded by levels of acclaim that for sure have yet to flow my way. I was once even asked to interact live with a roomful of students in Iowa by way of a group Internet linkup, which was great fun. And periodically some school or other will pay for me to travel to their campus so I can chat with their students face-to-face about my work. I get a kick out of such jaunts and my bank account is always pleased to be plied with campus speaking fees.

Mostly, though, I don't get to tag along when my graphic novel travels to college campuses and my secret desire to listen in on classroom discussions go unfulfilled. So the detailed online account of how SRB fared recently in an academic setting that was pointed out to me last month by the pedagogical perpetrator himself (that would be Stephen Frug, a graduate student at Cornell University who writes science fiction in his down time) was fascinating to read. It's not quite like being a fly on the wall, but it beats being on the wrong side of window glass wishing fruitlessly that you could hear what's happening inside.

If you've read Stuck Rubber Baby or think you might do so sometime, you may enjoy experiencing Stephen's individual take on the novel and his account of how his students reacted to it.

Stephen's heads-up about his blog entry arrived in my inbox a month ago and I immediately asked if I might invite readers of my own blog (that would be you) to look in on it as well. Stephen said yes, for which I thank him.

It's taken me four weeks to follow through because my mid-December crush of deadlines temporarily knocked my blogging habit out of the saddle and into the ditch by the horse trail. But as you may have noticed, with Christmas merriment now completed and holiday relief from my college teaching underway, I've begun climbing back from my blogside paralysis and, in the course of remounting this tortured equine metaphor that I find myself tentatively astride (at least until I'm finished with this ill-advised-but-too-weird-a-train-wreck-to-delete paragraph), I have begun catching up on old business.

Which includes pointing you toward Stephen's very interesting essay.

When you're a comic book creator who is lost over a span of years in the solitary processes of crosshatching, refining dialogue, and fretting about narrative transitions and character nuances, there is always the fantasy that at some vague point in the future someone will be moved to give your brainchild an attentive enough reading to discern and (hopefully) admire the thousands of tiny artistic decisions you are making in isolation along the way.

In your heart you know, of course, that not every reaction will be flattering. You can't even count on thumbs-up from an impressive minority. As frustrated artist Headrack observes resignedly in an old Barefootz comic strip, "A cult following is better than no following at all!"

I mean, you've gotta at least aim for your own cult!

Sure, some readers will invariably look askance at the flaws you never manage to eradicate. Heedless of your noble intentions, they will snicker impertinently at the instances where your skills are inadequate for the challenge you've set yourself. They will ridicule you in conversation with their friends. You may even end up being pummeled publicly by sarcastic reviewers. That's never fun, but the prospect of such town-square floggings rarely outweigh the hope that your work will inspire close readings by a few perceptive strangers. If you're going to soldier through the bouts of uncertainty that benight marathon projects, it pays to stay in denial about the possibility of hostile reactions once you're finished. Otherwise you'll be paralyzed.

In your heart, you have to believe that readers exist out there who will get what you're trying to do, who will find it rewarding to hover over your work's tiniest details and applaud your minute decisions for their intelligence, if not always for their success.

Thank god for academia, collective mother ship for all the world's obsessives. There the impulse to consider things in detail is rewarded rather than viewed as a sign that psychotherapy is urgently indicated.

December 25, 2006

Christmas Squirrel Humor

December 22, 2006

Getting Weird With St. Nick

For its most recent three issues an alternative weekly in my home town of Birmingham has been showcasing a bent Christmas tale about a world overrun with weirdly twisted Santas and more Christmases than a single planet can be expected to handle, thanks to the unwise wish of one greedy kid. The story is called "Destroy All Santas."

The author of this three-installment yarn is the paper's regular contributor J'Mel Davidson, who moonlights locally as a Magic City improv performer.

To enhance the publication of J'Mel's story as an event, three different Birmingham artists (Christopher Davis; Tim Rocks; and yours truly) were invited to create illustrations linked to "Destroy All Santas." These illustrations, created separately with no inter-artist consultation (or at least without any consultation between me and my counterparts down south) were displayed as cover art for the three issues of Birmingham Weekly that contained the holiday serial. My art (seen above) appears in the December 21-28 issue — the one that available as I write this.

You'll notice that, out of a touching desire to include me in the project, The Weekly's editor Glenny Brock has hewn to an expansive definition of the term "Birmingham artist." In other words, she has graciously ignored the fact that I've lived in Massachusetts for three years now and was a resident of New York City for the 27 years prior. Christopher and Tim, by contrast, are participants in Birmingham's cultural scene right now, so their standing as true Birminghamians may be viewed by some as more solid than mine.

Nevertheless, Glenny knows that "you can take the kid out of Alabama but you can't take the Alabama out of the kid" (to bend a colorful old saying to my will). My bare feet have squeezed Southern mud between their toes while I picked wild blackberries on the hillsides of Springville; I remember in which direction on Archedelphia Road we Birmingham-Southern students were instructed to run should nuclear bombs start falling on us during the Cuban Missile Crisis; and I know which way the bare butt of Vulcan faces. These are things that you can't take away from a fellow.

So I feel entitled to continue calling myself a Birmingham artist, however much I may dally in my dotage amid the stirring mountains of New England. I'm pleased that I was sought out across the miles to pry bizarro Santa Clauses out of my warped subconscious in the service of J'Mel's humorous verses (which you can read from the beginning by clicking here and following the story issue by issue).

Like the UAB Public Health cover art gig I told you about back in November, it's the kind of thing that makes an Alabama-born cartoonist feel like he's not all that disconnected from his younger self.

Above: the work of my two cover-art predecessors in the Destroy All Santas illustration parade. The first interpreter of J'Mel's story was Christopher Davis (above left); a week later came the cover by Tim Rocks (above right).

December 20, 2006

With Apologies to George Herriman

Shall I take a moment to share my 1978 spoof of one of the greatest comic strips ever?
NOTE TO LOVERS OF THE HERRIMAN ORIGINAL: My parodic juices tend to get stirred solely when my target are works I actually revere.)

December 18, 2006

Learning and Teaching

For once I had the presence of mind to come away from one of my forays into academia with an informal class shapshot. Seen above from left to right: there's Toby; Aaron; Kim; Amber; Zac (standing behind Amber); Tabatha; Alyssa (standing behind Tabatha); me; the two Joshes (one seated, the other standing next to me); Justin; and Andy.

Last Wednesday I bade a holiday farewell to the creative MCLA students who have gamely endured my cartooning tutelage for the last three months. They've been a good-humored, hard-working bunch and I will miss their weekly company.

Time will tell whether they'll look back on my Art 207 class as having been a worthwhile expenditure of their tuition money. I hope so. The fact that MCLA's Fine and Performing Arts Department invited me to teach the course at all is in stark contrast to the situation I confronted when I began my college years.

By now I've gotten used to the enlightened attitudes about cartooning fostered by specialized schools like Vermont's Center for Cartoon Studies, not to mention the School of Visual Arts in New York where I first taught at the college level, or the Ringling School of Art and Design in Florida, where I spent several days as a guest artist a couple of years ago. If dedicated art schools aren't hip to changing times, who will be? But a cartooning course at a small state college in rural Massachusetts? It's downright refreshing!

And to be fair, in all likelihood the art department of today's Birmingham-Southern College, my own alma mater, has moved beyond rigidity by now. But the suspicion with which cartooning as an academic discipline was viewed back in 1962 was daunting. In fact, a claim that cartooning could be viewed as any kind of "discipline" at all would only draw hoots of derision.

I felt the sting of this prejudice myself while briefly an art major at Birmingham-Southern in the 1960s. A couple of my art teachers were open-minded about my enthusiasm of drawing funny pictures that talked in word balloons, but my relationship with the Art Department Chair was a tense one. The guy was a true believer in the supremacy of abstract expressionism. He had little use for young artists like me who turned to the funny pages for creative inspiration.

Representationalism was dead, he preached. Paint should be seen as mere paint, not a means for communicating pictures. True art was about shapes. Areas of color. Flat patterns. Textures. Cartoons were trivial decorations best suited for disposable cocktail napkins.

I became a Drama/Speech Major.

Fortunately, any desire BSC's head art honcho may have had to show me the error of my ways was a lost cause from the word go. He arrived in my own universe far too late, since I had become irretrievably infected by the cartooning bug long before entering college.

For the most part during my childhood I was forced to learn by trial and error, on my own. I pored over the newspaper comics pages and copied what I saw. I read comic books constantly and absorbed their lessons about story structure intuitively. Actual instruction by an expert was nowhere available.

True, I found helpful advice of a very basic kind in the few Walter T. Foster booklets that addressed the topic of cartooning, but the scope of these amateur-oriented manuals left me hungry for insights with a more professional perspective. My dad had spilled the beans about drawing pictures being a way that some grown-ups earned their livings. Seized instantly by a determination to join their ranks, I was a very impatient little nine-year-old!

Then, by accident, I learned of the existence of the Famous Artists Cartoon Course.

I recounted the circumstances surrounding that discovery in the inaugural installment of a column I wrote regularly for Comics Scene magazine a quarter-century ago. What follow is a portion of that column that describes how the FA Course found its way first into my consciousness and then into my life. (If you'd like to read the entire column — including its description of my visit to Milton Caniff's studio when I was 16 — you can find it elsewhere on this web site.)

...One summer afternoon during those Springville days, Dad said on impulse, "Let's visit Tom Sims!"

Sims was writer of some of the post-Segar Popeye strips. He lived in Ohatchee, another small Alabama town from which he produced a homespun syndicated column called Ohatchee U.SA. He was the closest thing to a comic strip pro within driving distance.

So we drove to Ohatchee. My older brother wasn't along; it was just Dad and me. Just us two cartoonists. We didn't telephone first; we asked directions from the local townsfolk and pulled into Sims' driveway unannounced.

Sims was generous with his time and with compliments for my drawing samples. But something lay on the worktable of his assistant that I remember more vividly than the day's conversation. It was the set of textbooks for the Famous Artists Cartooning Course.

This course was prepared with the assistance of a stellar array of cartoonists from the fifties, most of whom are still active and remain stars today. Milton Caniff, Rube Goldberg, AI Capp, Willard Mullin and Virgil Partch were among the luminaries.

The three large volumes comprising the 24 lessons were wondrous treasuries of instruction and lore. I lusted after them instantly.

Dad saw that I would not be satisfied until I had taken the course myself. But the price was out of his reach.

Time passed. At 13 I began to move out of Springville' s orbit. By virtue of a scholarship, I was able to enroll at a private high school near Birmingham named Indian Springs.

At Indian Springs, great emphasis was placed on the development of a student's individual potentials. Note was taken of my cartooning bent, and soon I was decorating the pages of the school newspaper, designing posters for everybody-and-his-rival in the campus political campaigns, and rendering comic strips in French for my French class bulletin board.

One day Dr. Armstrong, the school's director, asked me what I would most wish for, given access to a magic genie or some such agent.

"I'd like to take the Famous Artists Cartooning Course,” I replied.

Nothing more was said then, but a few months later he called me to his office to tell me that a friend of the school, under guarantee of anonymity, had chosen to donate the money for me to take the course.

I still don't know the identity of my benefactor.

[NOTE: That is to say: I didn’t when I wrote these words back in 1981. I know more now. The giver was Dr. Armstrong himself.]

Many superficial aspects of the FA course are dated by today's standards, but the basics were solidly there. During the three years that I spent working through the course's 24 lessons, I had to root out lazy habits accumulated from years of copying the surfaces of other artists' drawings. I didn't complete the course a polished cartoonist, but the groundwork for a more professional approach and self-teaching techniques had been provided.

* * *

I still have my dog-eared copies of the three Famous Artists Course textbooks. I turned back to them for inspiration as I embarked on my recent teaching adventure at MCLA.

I can only hope that what I have offered in the classroom these last three months was a tenth as valuable to at least a few of my students as that correspondence course was to me 45 years ago.

After tackling its 24 lessons on top of my regular studies throughout my sophomore, junior, and senior years of high school, I was more than prepared to brush aside any snobbish challenges to my art form's validity by the time I entered college in 1962.

I still had plenty to learn about cartooning, but I knew without question that the cartoons I was making were art.

December 1, 2006

A Public Display of Affection

Avert your gaze, ye enemies of sentiment! Today is Eddie's birthday and I am giving him a public kiss.

The last word hasn't yet been spoken on the fate of same-sex marriages in Massachusetts, but at the moment it looks like efforts to engineer an amendment to the Massachusetts State Constitution that would reverse the legalization of gay marriages may have been successfully stymied by a deft (or sneaky, depending on how you look at it) parliamentary maneuver by our allies in the legislature.

Which means that life will go on for a while with doomsday predictions about the supposed bad effects of having lesbians and gays living as married couples amid the heterosexual majority being disproven with every passing day. Eddie and I are pleased to be participants in this process.

The state's marriage amendment as written cannot undo Eddie's and my marriage even if our governor Mit Romney succeeds in his effort to resurrect it at the last moment. That said, we all know that political winds can shift unexpectedly, and the deadline for getting an antigay marriage amendment onto the 2008 ballot hasn't quite passed yet. Therefore, although it seems unlikely, Massachusetts voters could still end up getting their shot a couple of years from now at defining future marriages between the same-sex couples next door out of bounds.

But whatever transpires (barring an unexpected surge for President Bush's must wished for amendment to the Federal Constitution), a change of marriage's definition in the Massachusetts Constitution can only affect gay nuptials thereafter. It will not be retroactive. So a sliver of the state's gay population will be left as legally wed as is possible while discrimination remains the rule beyond our state's borders. And that "sliver" of married human beings numbers in the thousands by now. That's no small sliver.

Whatever Massachusetts and America learn from spending years knowing that thousands of gay people are living in officially sanctioned households to no observable ill effect on society will be hard to unlearn, no matter how much the American Family Association rails. Such things can be unlearned (it's always sobering to remember that a gay-rights movement flourished in Germany before Hitler rose to crush it), but it's not easy to voluntarily blind yourself when you've spent some time viewing life's realities.

Massachusetts enjoys (grudgingly, sometimes) the reputation of being "the bluest of the blue states." To many people elsewhere this translates as "a breeding ground for liberal wackos." Being an unapologetic liberal who considers occasional wackniness his birthright as a cartoonist, I would feel safer if the Bay State's embrace of its reputation were a little firmer. The Catholic hierarchy in the state is no friend to "blueness" when it comes to marriage equality, and our governor freely scores points with the Christian right by demonstrating that familial love between members of the state's LGBT people cuts no ice with him. More disturbing than these fairly atypical examples of homophobic intransigence among the powerful is my awareness that such voices of intolerance clearly have a significant constituency in the state. Otherwise they would not be powerful.

I'm happy that gay people seem to have sturdier friends in this state's legislature than is common in most other states. Antigay legislation is not a slam dunk here. Whew. It would be more reassuring if marriages like Eddie's and mine were being defended by straightforwardly enlightened action instead of tricky votes for recesses. But we fringe types who live our lives trying to destroy American family values must take our victories however we can get them during dark times.

Homophobia-based inequality has been imbedded with depressing ease in numerous state constitutions across America since the possibility of equal rights for gays first reared its scary head in Hawaii back in the '90s. An outcry followed, as outcries always do when prejudices are challenged, and the people who were then in charge of Hawaiian rulemaking scampered to calm the waters. In short order discrimination in Hawaii was made Constitutional by referendum. And that was that in luau-land.

A pattern was established. Marriage equality has been steadily beaten back by votes or vetoes in state after state since then, just as equal rights for African-American citizens would surely have been voted down in my home state of Alabama when I was young, had not some "activist judges" removed bigotry-based laws as an option. Our Supreme Courts were cut from different cloth back then.

Occasional exceptions aside, I grew up viewing the U.S. Supreme Court as a thrilling buttress against the localized tyranny of ignorance. Even obstreperous Alabama Governor George C. Wallace was forced to step aside and allow black students to enroll at the University of Alabama once he was finished with his voter-pleasing "stand in the schoolhouse door." No matter how badly the racists of my home region behaved, the Warren Court saw what the American Constitution demanded in the way of "equal justice under the law" and made sure that the defenders of discrimination would ultimately have to step aside.

Thanks to relentless court-packing since those days by the "radical conservatives" who have taken charge of the GOP, fair rulings by the Supreme Court can no longer be counted upon to make the egalitarian ideals of our U.S. Constitution stick. Judicial appointments by George W. Bush, who happily displays the shallowest comprehension of what American democracy is all about that I have ever seen, may have succeeded in nudging the Supreme Court beyond a dangerous tipping point that will endure long after his own incompetence is expelled from the Oval Office. Time will tell. Am I nervous about Bush's legacy? I am indeed.

I take nothing for granted in a country as divided against itself as ours. But for now Eddie and I count ourselves lucky to live in a state where rule by antigay hysteria is not as easy a sell as elsewhere. After our 27 years together, being married means relatively little to us. But having the right to be married means a lot.

So it's handy that Eddie's birthday falls so close after Thanksgiving every year. The two of us have many things to be grateful for that are unrelated to geographical location, but to be a gay couple legally married under the pioneering laws of a pioneer state adds a special grace note to our gratitude each fall as we brace for winter's arrival.