Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Birthday List, Item #4: Eat at the Sweet Home Chicago Pizzeria

One of the great things about heading out to Chicago last month was that I had multiple opportunities to enjoy the Windy City's signature deep dish pizza. The pizza out there is so good it ruins you for everything else.

There are a lot of places outside of the Midwest that try to sell you on the idea that they serve "Chicago-style" pizza, but in most cases, they aren't even close. The problem is most people assume the only difference between Chicago pizza and regular pizza is that the former is really thick. But there's more to it than that. Chicago deep-dish is deep because it's designed more like a pie than a flat slab of dough with toppings. The crust is also flakier, more of a pastry than a chewy dough, and it really isn't all that thick. In addition, you put the tomato sauce on the top of the pizza instead of in-between the crust and the cheese. In short, this is Chicago deep dish pizza, courtesy of a picture I took the night I dropped by the Giordano's at 7th North and Rush Street:

Now, while eating genuine Chicago deep-dish pizza was certainly a trip priority, it wasn't an official Birthday List item. But eating at the Sweet Home Chicago Pizzeria was. And why?

Because the Sweet Home Chicago Pizzeria is located in Draper, Utah.

I first heard about the Pizzeria several months ago, and in spite of my initial skepticism, retained a curiosity for the place based on its website photos, which seemed to depict real Chicago-style pizza. As I was putting my list together, it was obvious that the time for a visit had come. The prospect of finding genuine Chicago deep dish pizza so close to home was too tempting a possibility to ignore.

So late last week I teamed up with Brad, one of my old Chi-town mission buddies, to go put this place to the test. We were both kind of nervous to go, especially when on the way we decided to call ahead and see if they could start our order ahead of time. Authentic deep dish pizza takes about forty-five minutes to bake properly, and we didn't want to abuse the time restrictions of our lunch hour, but the girl on the phone told us that they didn't take call-in orders. She also told us that wouldn't be a problem, though, because since things weren't super busy they could probably get us our pizza in about thirty minutes.


On the plus side, the price of a small pizza was only $8.99, so we figured at least we wouldn't be out too much money if the pizza stunk. So Brad and I kept on driving south on I-15 and eventually pulled into a nice new-looking establishment at the east end of a commercial development in Draper.

A half-hour later, they gave us this:

(insert sigh of relief)

They got the crust right, and they got the sauce right. Some of the ingredients didn't leave me singing songs of culinary joy, but overall, the Sweet Home Chicago Pizzeria earned its name. Granted, looking out the windows and seeing the Wasatch Mountains instead of the classic architecture of Chicago's Loop was a little strange. The Pizzeria will never quite take the place of sitting in the basement of Pizza Due at a candle-lit table at 1AM, but it will fill the void better than any of the trendy joints in Salt Lake that specialize in cracker-thin pizza-type-objects sprinkled with pesto.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

To each his own, but as for me and my family, we will choose Chicago-style...every time.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Birthday List, Item #3: Play the Drums at Buddy Guy's*

Some of the best advice I have ever been given was to seek out frightening situations and take risks in life. So when I saw that a landmark Chicago blues club would be hosting an open jam night while I was in town last month, I knew I had to participate.

I already figured that at some point in the week I would drop by Buddy Guy's Legends to hear some great music take some great pictures. Founded by one of Chicago's most beloved bluesmen, the club was only a couple of blocks from where I was staying at the south end of the Loop, and I knew from previous experience that the place would deliver. But now the question became: could I?

According to the club's website, open jam night would feature volunteer musicians who were welcome to drop by and sign up to play for free. You just had to bring your own instrument and sign your life away at the door in exchange for a waived cover charge and a chance at public humiliation. At least that's what the bouncer told me when I signed my name on the list and took a seat near the left side of the stage.

The first half of the night was filled by The Jimmy Burns Band, who played a regular set with Eric "Guitar" Davis on lead axe. I took a bunch of pictures and enjoyed some great blues music, all the while wondering if I would take the stage myself by the end of the night. My nerves jumped a level when at the tail end of the opening set, Buddy Guy himself showed up to sing a few tunes. Somehow I kept my composure, thinking, "well, if I'm going to humiliate myself, I may as well humiliate myself in front of the best."

After Buddy's cameo, the night shifted to open jam mode. Only the jam wasn't quite as open as I'd expected. Instead of a bunch of random musicians improvising, the MC kept calling up people who seemed very familiar with each other, and very rehearsed. In fact, the songs they played sounded more polished than the songs my band had been playing after months of practice. I started to get the sense that I was out of my league.

But hey, I couldn't back out now, right?

As the evening drew on, and more seasoned musicians took their turns wowing the increasingly intoxicated audience, I began to wonder if anyone would even call my unknown name off the sign-up list, or whether I should even hang around to find out. Even Buddy had already left for the night. Maybe signing up and hanging around for four hours would be enough of a frightening experience by itself?

Wrong. I had to go the distance.

So I did what any rational, level-headed underqualified drummer would do: I approached the MC and talked my way onto the stage. At the moment of truth, I found myself sitting at a foreign drum kit, surrounded by unfamiliar musicians, staring into the bright lights and smoky haze of one of Chicago's most celebrated blues clubs. On a far wall, a row of guitars autographed by the likes of Jimmy Reed and Eric Clapton hung silently. I clutched the souvenir DW sticks I had bought earlier in the day at the local House of Blues and tried to smile, praying I would pick up on the beat quick enough to avoid total humiliation.

I got in unscathed for the first number--a solid 4/4 beat--and even managed to recover when one of the souvenir sticks slipped out of my hands and rolled around on top of the kit before I grabbed it again. When the song ended, I looked around nervously, but no one was glaring at me or waving me off stage, so I stuck around.

In retrospect, that probably would have been a good time to sign off.

Song #2 was more of a 2/4 beat, at least that's what I thought. From the looks I started to get from the other guys, I might have been wrong on that one. Still, no one ran me off at the end of the song, and the crowd was still cheering and dancing, so I figured I was OK.

The wheels came off on song #3. For the life of me, I had no idea what beat to lay down at the beginning of the song, so there was a good 10-second stretch at the beginning where I tried to tap my way in and generally made a mess of things. Finally the bass player looked at me and started mouthing the count, which I would have appreciated more if not for the condescending manner of his delivery, and I finally got off the ground. At the end of the song, the MC walked up and offered an awkward handshake. It was time to step down.

As I walked offstage, I passed through a gathering of musicians, none of whom so much as made eye contact with me. No one said anything, but they didn't need to. I lingered for a moment, awkwardly wanting some moment of closure with someone around me, even if it was only to apologize for not being up to the standard of the rest of the guys. But no one came up, and the band was already into its next song, so I just turned and walked out the door.

Two hours later, I was still sitting up wide awake in my room, trying to make sense of what I had just done. I took the risk, I faced the fear, so why did I feel so terrible? I wondered if I should ever pick up the drumsticks again, let alone show my face in Buddy Guy's club in the next two decades. I wondered what would have happened if Buddy was still there when I played...would he have pulled me off the stage by my ear, enraged that I had defiled the quality of his precious club? Or would he have offered the closure I sought as I stood offstage afterward, putting his arm around me like a knowing grandparent and telling me to keep at it?

Over the next few days, the shock wore off and I started to get a little perspective on what I had done. Clearly I wasn't ready for the big time, but there was no doubt in my mind that I had done the "right" thing by getting up on stage. Maybe I didn't bring the house down, but I definitely made a memory for the ages.

Besides, as time goes by, the stories of the failures are a lot more fun to tell than the stories of the triumphs. And eventually they all blend together anyway.


*This is a great example of the "living document" nature of The List. When I was brainstorming ideas for the original list, I knew I would be spending some time in Chicago this summer, so I thought "photograph a Chicago blues band" might be a logical option. But since technically I already had taken some pictures of a Chicago blues band (back in 2008), I wound up placing this option on my back-up list. However, about 36 hours after arriving in Chicago last month, it was time to make a change.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Birthday List, Item #2: Change a Diaper

I should probably make it clear that while a lot of the items on The List are meant to be fun, others are exclusively designed to challenge my comfort zones. That's why when I decided to put my list together, I knew from the beginning that it was time to face my fears.

It was finally time to change a diaper.

Up until my sister made me an uncle last January, my sum total experience with babies primarily came through watching movies like "Raising Arizona" and "Three Men and a Baby." Whenever my friends would have kids, I would always give them a buffer zone of a few weeks before I'd bother them, and when I eventually did, I might be called on to hold the kid long enough for them to take a picture, but that was about it.

I have loved being an uncle, though. Aside from providing an endless assortment of smiles and expressions for Facebook, my niece is a constant source of perspective whenever I find myself getting too annoyed at whatever is bothering me that day, like the stock market, the dating scene, or the Jazz season going down in inexplicable flames.

At the same time, that perspective told me that the time would come when I wouldn't have the luxury of being an arm's-length uncle. When it's not your kid, it's easy to pass the baby on when it starts crying or smelling like something dangerous and unnatural. But I knew that wouldn't last forever, so I volunteered to take one for the team.

Out of respect for my readers, and especially the niece who will be able to read this one day, I won't go into detail about the experience itself. Let's just say I was happy to have my sister there to coach and take over when the train derailed briefly. Luckily, my niece still seemed to like me after it was all over, and that was all I was really worried about. We're still tight, at least until she inevitably grows hair and leaves me behind for all the cool kids. And who knows, maybe she'll respect my wisdom and advice a little more now that I've established myself as the power holder in the relationship. I mean, once you've wiped someone's bum, you're the boss, right?


(insert chorus of parents laughing all across the interwebs)

I guess I should enjoy being an arm's-length uncle while I can.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

The Birthday List, Item #1: Visit Bruce Lee's Grave

I don't know what it is about celebrity death, or celebrity grave sites, that is so fascinating. Chuck Klosterman wrote a book about a mega-road trip he took to visit the death sites of various rock and roll heroes, and the title of Rolling Stone author Neil Strauss's book "Everybody Loves You When You're Dead" speaks for itself. Maybe it's because we typically see celebrities as otherworldly creatures, images on a TV screen or voices on the radio, and standing next to their gravestones reminds us that they were actual human beings. Maybe we're just weird.

When I was an LDS missionary in Chicago, I was excited to learn that Al Capone's grave was in a cemetery across the street from the chapel where we held our mission leadership meetings. There was probably no more iconic Chicago "celebrity" than Capone, so after every meeting, a few of us would head over to see the grave and take pictures. This led to the curious image of a half-dozen guys in dark suits standing somberly over the grave of a deceased mafioso.

Last summer, on my first visit to Seattle, I made a point to visit the Jimi Hendrix memorial. Whereas Capone's marker was little more than a flat nondescript chunk of cement, the Hendrix Memorial was the centerpiece of the entire cemetery. I guess you can take a lot of messages from that.

I had already arranged a return visit to Seattle before I compiled my Birthday List, so I thought I should try to come up with an item or two that I could take care of while I was in town. Having already visited the Hendrix memorial, it seemed logical that I should visit the grave site of another Seattle music icon, Kurt Cobain. Trouble is, Cobain doesn't have one. He was cremated. You can go see the house where he committed suicide back in the 90's, but that seemed a little too macabre to justify. Besides, I found a better option.

Bruce Lee has been a fascinating character to me ever since I saw his bio pic "Dragon" when I was a teenager. While I've never been a huge fan of martial arts films, I was very interested in how Lee was able to discipline himself into such a finely-tuned butt-whooping machine. Plus, unlike the images created by a lot of Hollywood behind-the-scenes tell-all's, he seemed like a genuinely good guy. From time to time I'll wonder what would happen if I just set aside all my favorite junk foods for six months and did some hard-core training. I certainly wouldn't be Lee, but his example does suggest a little of what the human body is truly capable of. It's a topic that becomes more and more relevant after you cross the line into your 30's.

Anyway, Lee is buried in north Seattle (his wife's hometown), and on a Sunday afternoon in early July I zipped up there with The Cheetahman (another example of what the human body is capable of, if you're referring to Guess boots and cheetah-print speedos) to check it out. He's actually buried next to his son, Brandon, who died in a film set accident two months before "Dragon" was released (Bruce died at 32, his son at 28).

The grave site was a little crowded that day, so I didn't linger for a lot of quiet contemplation. In a way, I almost felt under-qualified to be there, since I wasn't as familiar with his film resume the way I was familiar with, say, Jimi Hendrix's recording career. On the few occasions I have dropped by to see the grave of someone famous, I've noticed there's always a moment where you quickly transition from a kind of laid-back "hey, I'm going to go see so-and-so's grave!" to a somber realization that you are visiting the final resting place of a real human being. Two-dimensional celebrity becomes three-dimensional reality, and at that point you lose interest in the nature of the person's death and think more about what they were in life. So I just took a couple of pictures and tried to maintain some semblance of an air of respect. Maybe it's true that everybody loves you when you're dead, but unlike Capone, Bruce Lee seems like someone who deserved to be loved when he was still around.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

It's kind of like a bucket list...without the death thing.

A few years ago, just before my sister turned 25, she made a list of 25 things to do before her birthday. This list covered a whole range of items, from framing a picture to skydiving. I think the whole point, aside from finding a way to "seize the day" more often, was to turn her birthday from an, "I'm getting older and I can't stop it!" kind of thing, to a "If I'm going down, I'm going down in a blaze of glory!" type of thing.

At least that's what I got out of it.

So I've got a birthday coming up in a couple months, and to be honest, I'm not entirely thrilled about it. But instead of wallow in self-indulgent sorrow, I'm going to follow my sister's lead and turn the lemons of advancing age into the lemonade of a life well-lived.

A few thoughts on the nature of a good birthday list:

1. It should include items that fall into one of three categories: stuff I've never done before, stuff I haven't done in a long time, and stuff I should be doing more often. No point in listing crap I'm already doing.

2. Given the time frame, you can't include too many "large" items on the list (like skydiving). List items don't have to be huge and/or expensive to be meaningful, though there should be at least a couple of starred events to look forward to.

3. List items are not set in stone. You have to be careful not to use this as an excuse, but the reality is that sometimes life takes turns, and we all know about the best laid plans of mice and men. My sister had to change a few items on the fly, but it wasn't always because of a failed opportunity. Sometimes something better came along.

I actually put together my final list at the beginning of July (I've chosen not to post it here for a variety of reasons), and I already have a few items crossed off. My noble intention is to do a different post on each completed item between now and October's deadline.

Wish me luck.