Celebrating Birthdays and Understanding “Togetherness”

December 2nd, 2009

It’s taken me over two months to write about my 9/11 birthday, to post pictures, to celebrate a celebration; I have a list of reasons which seem…plausible…but really they’re just excuses. I simply haven’t written anything. But today, a sweat pants, sleep in, gray skies, hang out with Lu day is the right day.

It also helps that it’s only two days after her birthday, and only partway through a Thanksgiving weekend which, conveniently, is long enough to give her a real birthday weekend. With three cakes, a dinner, two parties, friends and family. But mostly this weekend is simply relaxed time together. As a concept this may be rather pedestrian to many, but I’m still learning about “relaxed time together.” I like activities and, even if I’m surrounded by people, I’m used to being alone. Being with Lu is different. In a good way.

Months ago she asked me to block out a period of time in September, right around my birthday, because we were going somewhere. The destination was undisclosed and she kept it well hidden until the last moments. It’s not a location I would have guessed; she loves the beach and the sun and, maybe to purposely mislead me, we’d been talking about surf, snorkeling, and airline flights. I too like the beach, but I’m more of a mountain person; sleeping on the ground after a punishing day of climbing is my idea of a vacation. Or travel-for-work; photographing a story is also my idea of a vacation.

She was clever in how she laid out the clues. It was a place we would both enjoy. It had relaxation but it also had ‘activities’ I liked. It was warm.

Images from the destination after the jump….

It was a place where we could be together, just the two of us, and turn our attentions inward as we build our story through shared experience. She left me guessing and getting a little anxious; I wondered where we were headed and what to pack. I have long favored the expected and the known while still needing the thrill of ambiguity and the consequence of risk. Yes, I was that kid who went everywhere with his basket of toys, my “things.” As a child, I think I wanted familiarity more than most…maybe I should ask my mom about that. Today, I believe Lu’s presence embodies that security I desired but, with her vibrance and vitality, there is that element of the unknown. She’s definitely not boring. She’s Brazilian and I’m Japanese-American; we are a yin-yang made more complex by continually flipping the traditional gender roles.

20090911_ASE Aspen Trees – Images by Tim Matsui

I was pleasantly surprised when she revealed our destination (to my relief, with time to pack for it). Aspen, Colorado. It is a town with art, clubs, bars, restaurants, history and, importantly, shopping. It is surrounded by mountains. Excellent rock climbing crags are both up and down valley. It was a perfect location, for it met both our needs. She said to me just the other day, as we were trying to do too much, “I know you need to climb. I like to climb, but I need to shop.” This quote is slightly out of context, but we both laughed at how indicative of our natural tendencies this was. But, for the record, I do like to shop–with her.

Even better, Lu, who is the last-minute-cheap-airfare-I’m-going-now girl, had found a steal of a deal on airfare. Me? Flying wouldn’t have crossed my mind. I think it’s because I used to road trip so much in college (and after) that driving is ingrained; flying is something “other” people do. Foolishly, without thinking, I would have driven the 20-something hours, wasting time and spent more on gas. This is another moment to pause for reflection. Just because I’m familiar with something doesn’t mean it’s the right something. I am looking beyond the mere mode of travel in this anecdote to the subtext of the decision; it is about power balance, trust, and belief in your partner. Understanding this, for me, is important. Without it I would feel very much my own entity, and she her own, leaving very little for an “us.” Yes, I’m over-thinking an airplane flight, but I know I enjoy hearing her willful “voice” and trust her decisions. Even if I have trouble listening sometimes.

20090911_ASE Rocky Mountains Near Aspen Colorado – Images by Tim Matsui

We arrived in Aspen with only the loosest of plans and no place to stay. The slow season was just starting and so we found a time-share condo within walking distance of the downtown core–of course, for a very reasonable price. Without a car we were limited in where we could go, but town offered a chance to observe the odd culture, to window shop, to marvel at the ridiculous season-ending sales, and to take advantage of happy hour. We met gallery owners, jewelers, slacker coffee shop employees, and a pitifully sad man who was ending his 20 year business…with no idea of his future. We celebrated my actual birthday with a sushi dinner, at the sushi bar, near closing time, essentially with our own sushi chef in front of us (read: try new things for free) and afterwards saw a show. It was an eventful night.

20090911_ASE_D_152Renting a car at the airport gave us some much needed freedom from town. Always the deal-seeker, Lu reserved the smallest of small cars online (again, for a very good price) but it seems in Aspen the smallest rental is an SUV. We promptly collapsed the seats and threw our gear in back; it would be our home for the next few nights as we toured the ghost towns, high peaks, and climbing crags. Unfortunately, for the climbing, the weather wasn’t terribly cooperative. It was sunny and 70 in Seattle but high up in the Rockies it was threatening snow; in the valleys it rained.

FacebookSee more snapshots of my birthday in Aspen on Facebook!

We violated our rental contract and went 4×4’ing, marveling at some of the rigs barreling down the rough mining tracks. I spent a lot of time in 4-wheel low, unsure of our clearance, and thinking light thoughts. My greatest fear, besides denting and paying for the running boards, was cutting a tire on the sharp rocks. Changing a flat out there didn’t sound fun.


Eventually we did get a chance to use the climbing gear we brought. Independence Pass has some great rock with two-minute approaches. For me its features will take some getting used to, but it was pleasant. It was new and I will enjoy going back.

While typing this I am interrupted by Lu, distracted and engaged. I am kissed and kidded, we laugh, and return to our work. It’s now her birthday weekend. The recession has been tough on both of us. Well, mostly on me but also on freelance photographers as a whole, especially those of us documenting social justice. Even if I had half the deal-finding skill Lu has, I wouldn’t have been able to surprise her with a flight to an exotic destination filled with the warmth, water, and the sun she craves. I know we will both enjoy that–when we can go. Given our travel history (it’s where we put our money as we prefer experiences over “things”) I’m sure we’ll be there soon.


As I reflect on what she gave me, and feel a twinge of guilt and inadequacy at my inability to return it, I am encouraged. She is telling me again and again how appreciative she is of me–just me. It tells me that our shared experience may be abroad, it may be in the mountains, or it may simply be at home; what is important is that we have it, that we have each other. I am thanking her as much for her birthday as for mine, for all the days in between, and even when our cultures and strong personalities clash. I am thanking her for the richness of simply being together, even on a dreary, sweat pants, hung-over-from-birthday-party kind of a day.

FacebookSee pictures of the Lu’s birthday in Seattle on Facebook!


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