Old Guy on Tour

Tom Nickel
7 min readNov 7, 2018

Retirement & Doing Stuff that Matters

Arn Chorn-Pond, Kong Nei, Bob Dylan, outside wall in Battambang, Cambodia

Finding deeply engaging work for a good cause is no simple matter in early retirement. A lot of volunteer work is at the level of envelope stuffing. It has to be done but it’s not what I had in mind for this exquisite and probably brief chapter of life.

I’m not looking for glory, just to be helpful in a way that draws on the energy and enthusiasm I still have and I suppose also a few bits of wisdom I’ve gained. Seems like it shouldn’t be that tough, but it is.

Deeper involvement usually means deeper commitment. Who is really prepared for that? Just after freedom from 40–60 hours/week of commitments? I don’t know. Is that It, then?

I don’t know if it always works this way, but I relied on the Guided Serendipity Factor (GSF) and kept putting myself in situations where what I’m looking for might find me.

It did.

There was no invitation with my name on it. Just a welcoming attitude and a vague appreciation for what I showed people, what I could conceivably bring to the table — some 360 VR video segments I recorded driving around the country with the Co-Founders of Cambodian Living Arts.

Two years later, with extended stays in Phnom Penh, learning my way around, training young people and producing more video, I am now an accepted peripheral character. A member of the extended family, something like a cousin.

I treasure my personal connection to Arn Chorn-Pond, survivor of the Killing Fields and now a world-class inspirational figure. So do thousands of other people he has touched. It can’t be the magic of Arn alone that sustains my involvement.

It has to be the involvement itself. I have to like working with people who sometimes barely understand me, in a blast furnace with high humidity added just for fun, where it’s not my place, not my culture. Where I’m a guest and always will be, no matter how hard I work on learning the Khmer language and trying not to be an ignorant jerk.

I do like it, in some ways because of the challenging environment. I don’t like it in the same way I like being Grampa and having my grandkids climb all over me. I like it in the way I used to like Wrestling and, just as importantly, being on the Wrestling team, back when I was in High School.

Wrestling took me out of everything I was comfortable with and constantly made me wonder what I was thinking to put myself in this situation, but when practice was over I felt good like I never had before.

I don’t wrestle anyone when I stay in Cambodia but being there is not like anything I’m used to and I often wonder what I was thinking. I have to be On all the time.

The Khmer Magic Music Bus

It makes me feel alive in a different way, more present, because I have to be. Not because it’s dangerous, although it can be, but because it’s a different world. I can contribute, but I’m still an explorer all the time. Especially when I ride the Khmer Magic Music Bus (KMMB).

The Bus brings Cambodian music to Cambodians, who haven’t heard it since the Khmer Rouge took over the country and killed the artists starting back in 1975. I’ve recorded crowds of happy kids in 360 degree video, laughing with Samnang Nou playing the Chapei and performing his version of Khmei Rap. That actually was something like a wrestling match, a little daunting and totally exhilarating.

When I learned that CLA was coming to the USA, renting an American version of the Khmer Magic Music Bus and playing an Arts4Peace Tour from Vermont to Virginia, I knew I wanted to be part of it. They didn’t need me. I’m not some savior they couldn’t do without. I just figured I could make things a little smoother, a little easier. I also thought the VR video I made on the Bus in Cambodia might be a nice touch at some of the after-show receptions.

My idea was to create no overhead, no cost, only benefit. Rent my own car, find my own places to stay. Just be there at the right times, in case. It’s kind of crazy I know, but I’m now two weeks into the three week gig and it’s been perfect.

I’ve been helpful but not essential. I’ve taken on responsibilities that have become crucial, but without me, they would have done something else.

I’m carrying the drums, for one thing. They take up too much room on the Bus. So I’m the drum guy. Anyone who has ever dealt with equipment and music venues knows that it’s something like carrying a heavy pack up a hill with buried land mines.

I’ve gone to pick up people at the station. Taken musicians off on side errands. I help a teeny bit sometimes in the tech rehearsals. Once I actually ran the sound board; I’m not saying where because the real sound guy, who was having a bad day, would probably get in trouble.

Samnang Nou on Chapei

I have also been able break out my Oculus Go VR Headset and immerse people in that Cambodian village with Samnang playing for all the kids. It’s been a big hit. VR is new and exciting and a little mindblowing; having it on the Tour shows that CLA is looking toward the future.

There have been six performances so far, starting in Putney, VT. Every venue has been full. Every audience has been engaged and inspired.

The five musicians, led by Arn, have performed in theaters, restaurants and living rooms. They have entertained and touched people who knew them already and others who just came, with none of the backstory.

I am not the only one supporting them. Two very capable Tour Coordinators flew with them from Phnom Penh. An American volunteer, who knows her way around and speaks Khmer, is driving the bus.

They don’t need me. But because I’ve done a pretty good job of staying out of the way, and doing what’s asked or what I see needs doing, I think everyone is happy to have me. I’m part of the Arts4Peace Tour, part of something bigger than myself.

I’m having a blast.

I’m not off-the-charts happy all the time or even most of the time. But I am some of the time. The rest of the time, mostly, I feel like I’m where I should be. I didn’t necessarily feel that way circling the neighborhood in Brooklyn looking for a parking space after midnight somewhere near my AirBnb. But I finally found one, got into my cozy budget studio and slept well.

I’ll be 70 next month. I’m not doing this to have a blast. I’m doing it because I wanted to find a certain kind of deep involvement in this little phase of my life, which I have. Being an Old Guy on Tour is part of it.

I’ve already mentioned some of the lessons I’m learning:

  1. Helpful but not Essential. I don’t know if it’s just me, or if this principle might apply to many other retired people looking for something substantial. Even my most hi-tech contribution, the VR gradually being employed, is not mission critical or anything close to it. If it works out, it’s a big plus. If it doesn’t, not much is lost.
  2. Part of Something Larger. What a cliche, right? I’m already part of something larger without leaving home. I’m a husband and a father and grandfather. We’re a close and loving family. They are my comfort zone in every way. Part of me wants to just stay there all the time. Another part wants to get out and have an adventure.
  3. My Retirement Rhythm. Rest and action. Reflect at home, go on Tour. Re-charge, then re-engage in Siem Reap training young Cambodians to document the music festival there in January, 2019. Stay for a while, or more. Then go home.
  4. Art Makes a Difference.The show is called ‘Heartstrings’ and it dramatizes art saving lives. It’s direct and personal and very powerful. And that’s just the beginning. The Khmer Magic Music Bus inspires children. Some of them will follow the path of Art, where they might learn that they can create, innovate, that their ideas matter. That’s a big deal.

One more week on Tour. Then Arts4Peace will return to Cambodia and I will fly back to San Francisco.

I’ll enjoy my own shower, my favorite coffee shop. I’ll be more comfortable.

I’ll miss carrying the drums.



Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos