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Moving On

After 2 years of blogging on Endless Braid, its time to move on and focus my energy on growing IDYL Tattoo and my custom illustration services. This website will remain as an archive, and I will continue to write about life in Cambodia on my new portfolio site here: Natalie Phillips Art.

Thanks for reading.


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Sticky Stories

blood_mandalaIts Saturday night and you can’t sleep and you wish you had something delicious to read because you’ve checked all your stupid websites, and now you’re checking them again, and its starting to make you feel kind of sick…

Its Sunday morning and you don’t have to work but you’re a little hungover and you don’t want to get out of bed yet…

Its Monday afternoon and the pets are fed and the plants are watered and you have some time to kill before your show comes on…

For awhile now, people have been claiming that the short story is a dying breed. Ted Genoways puts up a convincing argument in his Mother Jones piece, The Death of Fiction?  Here’s a disheartening excerpt:

“Last summer, Louis Menand tabulated that there were 822 creative writing programs. Consider this for a moment: If those programs admit even 5 to 10 new students per year, then they will cumulatively produce some 60,000 new writers in the coming decade. Yet the average literary magazine now prints fewer than 1,500 copies. In short, no one is reading all this newly produced literature—not even the writers themselves.”

I for one love to read short stories and hope they don’t go away. Though I obviously don’t have access to literary magazines in Kampot, I’ve been really pleased to discover over the course of this year how many good short stories are published digitally. Many of the ones that really stole my heart were in the much-maligned fantasy genre; no shame.

Here are my favorites…the ones that stick:

If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love by Rachel Swirsky (Apex Magazine) If you feel like crying, read this story! It won the Nebula Award and its not hard to see why.

Jackalope Wives by Ursula Vernon (Apex Magazine) A folktale set in the American southwest that is delightful and charming, and not in an annoying cutesy way.

The Food in the Basement by Laura Davy (Apex Magazine) Vampires are pretty trite these days but this writer managed to put a fresh spin on them.

What We’ve Lost, Sometimes by Karen Bovenmyer (Crossed Genres) Creepy and otherworldly, and only 1,000 words long.

Good Night, Sweet Prince by Rosamund Hodge (The Hanging Garden) I’m a sucker for a disastrous medieval love story…

Sarah’s Child by Susan Jane Bigelow (Strange Horizons) Nice to have a beautifully written, poignant speculative fiction piece from a transgender perspective.

Cementhead by John Tait (The Sun Magazine) Why is this story about a hockey player who has been hit in the head too many times so unsettling?

Reptile Man by Jasmine Skye (The Sun Magazine) “I’ve read that its common to be repelled by someone you later find attractive.” The honesty is too much.

What Miss Lena Prays For by Jessica Anya Blau (The Sun Magazine) Inhabit the brain of a vaguely evil shop assistant for a little while…

Happy Reading! southweststory

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Fever Dreams

nat_low_resWho are all these visitors, sitting in my bed? Why do they want to talk so much and why can’t I follow the thread of the conversation for more than a few words? Don’t they know I’m sick and tired, so, so tired, that I haven’t left the house in almost 9 days because I just want to be sleep and be alone? Why do they only show up after I drink Wood’s Peppermint Antitussive cough syrup? Why do they always show up after I drink Wood’s Peppermint Antitussive cough syrup?

I had what I thought was a reasonable and sane plan for the last 2 weeks of October. I was just going to take a quick trip to Kep to write an 1,800 word article, design and tattoo 3 large custom tattoos, paint a 2-page illustration magazine spread, write freelance articles for a company back in America, outline and start painting 3 huge wooden panels for an art show in November and then round it off by rescuing 3 starving kittens and feeding them every 4 hours by hand with milk and fish paste, bleaching and mopping the floors every day until they learned how to use the litter box.

About a week in and I was drowning under a landslide of deadlines and obligations and kitty litter, which isn’t actual kitty litter (it costs an ungodly $8.50 a bag here) but a fine, odor-enabling sand from the banks of the Kampot River that slips into every crack, every toenail. But I was going to do it all, and drink with my friends every night, and keep my hair braided so it wouldn’t get frizzy goddammit.

Oh what a fool I was. When you don’t water a tree, it becomes stressed; it starts to curl inwards to conserve its strength, and that’s when the bugs come. They can spot their host from across a whole forest.

idyl_logoExhaustion, fatigue, weakness- the usual culprits to start. But the thirst. You know those dreams, where you drink gallons and gallons of water but can never satiate your thirst? Then you wake up and you actually are thirsty as hell and run to the sink and drink the best glass of water you ever had in your life.

I could not quench that thirst. Every day I polished off a carton of juice, the water from 1 or 2 fresh coconuts, and countless mason jars of water and Royal-D, the Thai Emergen-C. In high school they told us ravers who take E sometimes drink themselves to death, just with regular water. I wondered how much water it would take and how you would know.

My muscles seemed to be shrinking and tightening, making it impossible to rest in any position. When I eased into basically the world’s gentlest yoga pose, laying on my back with my legs up the wall, I found I couldn’t even straighten them without excruciating pain. My spine was a steel rod. When Gabe tenderly massaged my back, it felt like my skin might roll off under his fingers.

Was it dengue fever? Well there was no fever. But then suddenly there was, and chills, and more fever, and suddenly the tight muscles let go. Then came the hacking cough and strands of phlegm, accumulating in a jar by the bed.

Food had never seemed so unappealing. I drove Gabe mad with my finnicky requests, which he would accommodate only to have me roll away uninterested after a bite, like a great white sampling a surfer she mistook for a sealion.

I ate almost nothing. The only 2 food items that didn’t fill me with disgust were pineapple, and dragonfruit, which has the sad distinction of being both the most aesthetically beautiful tropical fruit and the blandest.

When I was around 11 or 12, I remember many times running into the kitchen, throwing my backpack to the floor and begging my mom desperately for fresh orange juice. She would be there juicing as fast as she could while I screamed like a scrawny dictator for her to hurry, feeling like I would die waiting. For years I would cut orange after orange in half and put the whole wounded side in my mouth, leaching out the pulp like a vampire, going through 2, 3, 4 at a time in a frenzy. What do our bodies know that we don’t?

girl_waveDay after day, floating, sleeping, dreaming, losing time, missing deadlines. It was always cold in my dreams and it felt good to feel the damp air and be dressed in a thin jacket and pants boots, to step over puddles and see tall dark green trees. There was even a polar bear. I sat on the brick wall in front of my mom’s flower garden and I talked to my step dad and I said, “you know those birds we’re listening to? We have those in Cambodia, they’re called Asia swiftlets.” And when I woke up I could hear the swiftlets recording playing from the bird house across the street, and it felt cruel.

I cried and I watched dozens of youtube videos and movies and read bits of things and thought about how I’d never finish all my work and stared out the part of the window I could see from the bed. The rain drops collecting on the black cables became interesting just because they weren’t there before. I thought about all the times I’d told people while I was tattooing them that the suffering was temporary, that they should go into the pain and feel it. How annoying that advice seemed now, now that I was suffering.

Yesterday we decided to go to the hospital, but I started to feel better, and we didn’t go. Last night I brushed my matted hair and put on a dress and looked at my gaunt face in the mirror and had the weird thought that I looked like a Spanish pirate with scurvy. I went out the back door in the dark, stepping over stray cats and broken cement and feeling like an alien.

And while people’s kindness when I walked back into the light was heartwarming, because I for some reason thought no would notice my absence, and eating my first hot meal was heavenly, what was really so affecting was the intensity of just being alert and alive. Every color brought into sharper focus, every movement more meaningful. To look into your eyes and see a soul inside and not even want to talk because just looking is enough, is too much.

All this writing, all this drawing, ticking boxes off a checklist in a silent prayer that it will allow for a career in the arts, for a little longer. When art should be used to bring you back to life, to trigger that intensity of being, to remind you of those peak moments that are so hard to grasp.

Getting sick sucked. But it left me with a blissful piece of clarity, and I know these feelings never last, but right now it is so heartbreakingly beautiful to feel life radiating in towards me again, staying to be held, and cherished, and then released.




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Working Girl

idylThis is Mary. She’s not actually covered in tattoos, but she was arrested in Portland in 1943 for prostitution. Gabe has her grainy black and white mugshot, given to him by a friend who moved into a house formerly owned by a parole officer.

What a face! Who can say now what circumstances led Mary to a life of streetwalking, because she surely could have been a model or actress with that stunning visage. Her image is a welcome addition to my art studio as I prepare to get more serious about making a living here.

We moved out of our teensy but ridiculously cheap hovel and into a legitimate two story Khmer-style apartment that opens out onto a fairly busy (as far as Kampot is concerned) street two blocks from the river. The second bedroom, located behind the shopfront where Gabe keeps his scooters, is my art studio.

I only recently realized I had never had an art studio before. Bedrooms and shared spaces and gallery internships where I pretended the front counter was my private drafting table, but never a room with my own desk and shelves stocked with paint and paper and books. A Room Of One’s Own and all that.

It is pretty fucking great. But with added space comes the added anxiety of paying for that additional luxury. After 6 months of sleeping in a broiling loft, taking cold “showers” from a plastic bucket and keeping perishables (ie pickles and mustard) in a styrofoam cooler filled with ice, we were ready to shell out on a fridge and hot water heater. What the shopfront will become, once its no longer Gabe’s garage,  is still a mystery.

cat_thiefI’ve been making a living off  internet content for about 4 years now. Its not something I’m especially proud or ashamed of. It gave me a ton of free time to draw and travel. I probably would not have made the leap to living in a foreign country without this safety net.

Tattooing is an avenue I’m excited to explore further because, obviously, it still requires drawing, and also, it provides an opportunity to actually interact with other human beings. Instead of just sitting alone in my studio or in a coffee shop, churning out articles about How To Kill Woodlice (why can’t people leave roly polys alone?) or How To Get Seats At The Macy’s Day Parade (Pro tip: you can’t), occasionally I hope to sit in my studio with another person, and stick needles into them for hours, and hours, and hours, because I’m pretty slow at this and you want it to look good right?

The conventional path to becoming a tattoo artist is to get an apprenticeship, which isn’t really an option here in Cambo. I was fortunate to have some  volunteers who offered up their hides. Here is the first piece I did on Gabe:

skeletonIt was a bonding experience that was both sweet and horrifying, the horror coming mostly from a point about midway in the tattoo, when I rubbed off a large portion of the stencil with my sweaty palm.  I freehanded most of the ribs and vertebrates, counting them over and over again in a panic while telling Gabe I was just concentrating really hard. The next one went more smoothly. Since four of his tattoos have skulls in them, it seemed like something a little lighter was in order.

gabe_tat (1)


People who already are covered in tattoos are a bit more forgiving of imperfections. My wonderful friend Jess, who has been getting tattooed regularly since she was 18, was my next volunteer. She’s got them all: a shamrock on fire, a piece of licorice shaped like a heart, a jaunty peach wearing a bowler hat, the classic Mom heart. I did a matching moth tattoo, one on her and one on myself, to symbolize our transformation from slouchy, lovelorn teenage buddies (called a “couple of ugh butts” by a passerby one memorable afternoon) to the shining pair of lepidopterans we are today, or something like that. Here is Jess’s thigh:




Luckily, the thigh is not a very painful place to tattoo. I was still nervous as hell to do it to myself, but the tattoo came out well, although I rushed through it a bit more than Jessica’s. IMG_8773I still really wanted a tiger tattoo for my one year anniversary in Cambodia. Not just for the year of my birth, the year of the tiger, but for my own feeling of wanting to grow into a stronger, more capable person. I tried to get a local Khmer artist who does traditional bamboo stick and poke tattoos to design me one.

Somehow I ended up with a drawing in my hands of a chicken. A really beautiful chicken with long curly feathers, but still, a chicken; basically, the complete symbolic opposite of a tiger. It was frustrating at the time but now I’m grateful, because I went ahead and tattooed my own tiger on the side of my leg a few months later, which took some “tigerness” to bring into being. The blue rose represents impossible perfection, that lofty endpoint that we strive for in ourselves and our craft and, thankfully, will never reach.

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Grandma’s Stories II


My favorite photo of my grandma captures her with “a dog nobody talks about anymore.” Its a grainy, black and white photo taken right after she got engaged to grandpa. Her hair blowing in the wind, a smile radiating across her whole face, the scene just brims with youthful optimism – she literally seems to be looking forward into the future, and she likes what she sees.

Leaving my grandma, and my Dad, at the St. Louis airport was incredibly hard. But I’m glad we had a chance to sit down a few times during my visit to talk about her life before she was a grandmother.

 Grandma On Her Early School Life: 

“I went to a two room school. Four grades in each room. We could do a lot of things kids couldn’t in a bigger school.  We’d find these little lizards and carry them. Sometimes you could put them in your pocket, if you didn’t, you’d carry them in a sack. We had a lunch room – that was the only place you couldn’t carry them.

“To go to school we had to walk through a pasture, through barbed wire fences. It took us half an hour to get to school, summer or winter. Sometimes we’d find baby rabbits that were deserted, or a bird with an injured wing, and we’d put them in a shoebox and try to help em. Of course, they always died.

“The only thing we stayed away from were the snakes. We didn’t care for the snakes. Once, Dad brought a baby goat home. We kept it til it got too big and started to smell bad. But we had chickens. Raleigh raised rabbits and sold em to people who ate em. I didn’t like that,  but that’s how it was. Same with the chickens. So we had quite an experience as kids.

“I loved horses. My dad, having grown up out west in Montana, a horse to him was not a toy; it was a necessity. It was a means of moving logs, ploughing, pulling wagons. It wasn’t something you rode only, it had to be a work horse.

“So he would take me to a stable and he’d show me how to put a saddle on, how to put a bridle on, what to wear while I rode a horse… He’d pay for about an hour.

“About 6 months later, it was early spring, I kept beggin’ him if I couldn’t have a horse, and he said ‘Come here, I’m gonna take you somewhere.’  We drove way out in the country in Belleville, he had his truck that was quite large. I thought ‘Why is he taking a truck this large?’ As soon as we drove up, I thought ‘Oh my god,  he’s buying me  a horse!’

“He had already bought it. He already made arrangements with a neighbor who had 80 acres. He came home with bales of hay and grain, and spent a lot of time telling me how to walk around a horse – ‘A horse will not hurt you or step on your foot if he knows you’re there.’

“He spent  a lot of time with me showing me what to do, then one day he told me: ‘Sis, you’re on your own. Ride it, exercise it.’ Til my senior year of high school, I had 3 horses.

“I outgrew the first one, it was an older horse, it didn’t do much but walk.  I was in 8th grade, I named her LuLu after my mother, her name was Lucille.

“The second horse I didn’t keep very long. That horse was not well, he had a problem with one leg. The guy that came to put the shoes on him sensed that he was going lame. I don’t know whether he sold him for meat or what…

“Then I got Scout. We had a riding club, a group of us in high school, and we would all ride out to the east side of Collinsville, and one of our classmates has a large barn, and we would all go out and have pony trips.

“I rode that horse from that area to about 5 miles to my house, all the way through Collinsville. My  friend and me,  we would go right through Main Street!  People would smile and pet our horses. [Says rather sassily]: We didn’t go the back way.

“When I met Jerry, I was a senior in high school. The horses got out.  Jerry’s cousin Bob Long also kept his horses there. Our neighbor had a jeep. I asked her if she’d take us because we had to go look for the horse.

“We went all the way through Collinsville and into Maryville,  and we found them. We put our bridles on and saddles and we rode those horses back to Collinsville, like kids riding bicycles today. Nobody objected, we didn’t have interstates, we had 2 lane roads. If a car came over, we’d pull over.

“Jerry was in the Jeep too, along for the ride. He had this massive head of curls and he rode back in the jeep and I thought,  ‘What a jerk. Who irons their jeans?’

“Anyway his mother did, and that’s how I first met him.  And never thought about it til 3 years later, when his brother built a house on our street.  Jerry would go by and wave at me, and my mother said  ‘I think he ‘s looking at you wanda,’ and I said, ‘Let him look. It’s free.’

“He asked to go on a date with me. I didn’t like to date short guys, shorter than me, cuz I was tall, 5′ 8″ or 9.”  I told mother: ‘When he comes up on the porch to pick me up, give me a sign if he’s short or if he’s taller than me.’

So he came up and she went out on the porch and gave me a sign that its ok, and I had him. Two years of that, and 62 years of marriage.


On Working As an Illustrator: 

“I went to Hadly Commercial Art School in St. Louis when I graduated from high school. It was actually a two year course. I wasn’t dating Jerry the first year, the second I was dating him.  It was strictly commercial art, designing women’s clothes, things for animals.

“Well I got married, and right after we were married in September, Grandpa got an opportunity to work as a repairman in television in sales business about 30 miles away. So I quit my job [at a print shop] and went.

“In March he was drafted, and I came back to St. luis, and I went to work at Scott Field outside of Belleville as an illustrator. These were the schematics for the men in service. Jerry helped me a lot with terminology. I did that for 6 months, then I was transferred to Fort Bragg Carolina and they transferred me, doing the same thing. And that’s where I stayed til he got out.

“Yes. I enjoyed it… It was the kind of a job were you never went to work dressed up, you wore pants…

“I grew up with a mother who was very accepting: No matter what the pay, rewards will come later. All my friends that were typing and doing shorthand were making a lot more pay than I was. But I was having a lot of fun.”


On Grandpa’s Mother: 

“She didn’t give us a wedding gift because she said it would never last. It was her way or no way I guess you could say. She and her next door neighbor dreamed all their lives that her daughter, who was two years younger than Jerry, that they would get married, and then here came Wanda [laughs].

“Her sister didn’t come to the wedding and neither did her brother, or their spouses. And she wore black [see above illustration]. She did not want him to get married to me. She thought he was too young to get married, although she got married when she was 16, and Jerry had just turned 21.

“Granddaddy didn’t care, granddaddy liked me.  I got along with him really well, he was a super, wonderful father in-law.

“My mother told me not to worry about it, she said:  ‘Time will take care of it, don’t say anything.’ But my friends certainly had fun with it – they all noticed it! I’ll show you a picture.  It’s obvious, so obvious! I think if you see her picture you would know….

“Sometimes people change as they grow older. They get fonder. I learned how to cope with her, I’d flatter her – and she enjoyed it.  ‘Oh Rachel you look so pretty today, that’s a nice dress!’ My mother taught me how to do that.

[Brings out photograph]

“Black, black as black can be! See the look? [points at  face]. I think that’s the only picture I’ve got of her. Ask my children. They have no memories of a warm and cuddly grandmother.”

On Momo, Grandmother’s Mother: 

“But they had my mother, and she was a very, very good grandmother, and they loved her. Mother was not the typical wife and mother, as women were at that time. She was an artist, and she thought nothing of taking off and doing art on buildings.

“She had a restaurant up in Belleville where she had painted scenes, large scenes, behind bars.  And she was a tremendous seamstress, she sewed and made wedding gowns for everybody. She wasn’t the kind of grandmother that stayed home and baked cookies. She spent every weekend taking us to the art museum, to the zoo, to the historical society.

“To her, going fishing and painting and going to the zoo was more important than worrying about what you were going to eat for supper. She did not like to cook, she turned her kitchen over to my brother at an early age. We cooked the meals – she’d give us advice.

“And she loved photography, she had every camera I think that was ever made, and that’s what we thank her for today, all the pictures she took for all of us.

“She painted and loved to mess with clay, and she’d make animals and greenware, I got it all over the house. She had her own shows for ceramics and greenware that she made, she had her own shows at her house, and open house at Christmas, and people would come in and buy it.

“We had a big house in the country, and she decided she wanted to paint it pink.  My father was the type of person, he didn’t care what she did. It was quite exciting to have people come over and see the pink house. She went to California to visit her sister and saw all the beautiful colors of the homes and she said, ‘Why not?’

“[The Pink House] reminded them of the mountains in Montana, because it was on a hill.  That’s where they stayed until they died.


On Montana and Traveling: 

“[In Montana] My father had to walk 2 miles every day to school. He put his brother and sister on the back of the horse and walked the whole way. They had a corral for all the horses because most of the kids came that way.

“Dad’s sister, she was 2 years younger than him, she taught school, country school. Her life was hard. When you have 8 feet of snow, sometimes kids had to stay overnight and sleep at school. The teachers would be locked in with the kids. They had extra fuel, plenty of wood, and they had blankets stored, and they had a stove.

“They left Montana when I was a year old because of the depression. My dad was building elevators in the coal mines and during the depression, they closed all the coal mines, and there was no work. They sold everything they could and got on the train and came to east St. Louis, where mother’s 2 sisters lived.

“I never heard them every say they wanted to go back –the winters were awful, fiercesome, and there was no work, no way to earn any living. They had the ranch, and they just survived. They sold eggs, cattle…it was a hard life and it was great in east st. louis. Dad started a trucking company and did very well and had it until the day he died – at the age of 70. My Dad never, ever wanted to go back.

“We made a trip out West every year. We called it the ‘Round Robin,’  because Momo started from east St. Louis or Collinsville and she went to Round Up Montana to visit my dad’s mother, Grandma Wilkinson, and her brother Bernard. The three of us, three children, she drove by herself.

“And she would stop for lunch, get out her little gas stove and cook us lunch and we’d get back in the car and go. We had no road maps, everything was written down on a piece of paper.

“She made the trip many times. She was a mechanic with the car – if we had a flat tire, she’d jack it up, take the inner tube out, patch it, put it back in and pump air back in it. And we had many flat tires.

“They always had a rodeo, that was a big event for that part of Montana.  Remember when you and Ian went to the rodeo as kids, and you liked that young 10 or 11 year old boy who was riding? [laughs].

“I got to ride the horses of relatives that had ranches, that was a big treat. Grandmother Wilkinson had a lot of relatives in that area, they were ranchers and farmers. The rodeo was the biggest event in our lives, we just loved it – it was a whole week of rodeos. Lot of picnics and get togethers. After hard winters, anything in the summer was a big event.

“We went to Catalina island once by boat. I saw my first flying fish. That was quite a thrill.

On Momo’s Philosophy: 


“She had a tremendous sense of humor and was always doing funny things and tricks on people, that’s why she got along so well with Jerry.

“Halloween was one of her favorite holidays. She would dress up like a witch, ‘Witchy Poo,’ with her teeth black and her fingernails, she’d paint them a gaudy color, a horrible green. She’d pass out treats at Halloween and she would take spaghetti and cook it soft and drain it and have the kids stick their hands in and tell them it was worms.

“Her theory is: ‘Every child is an artist, just give them a chance to express themselves.’ As children, she would give us paper, pencil, paint and she would give us a project. She did that for my children. I have pieces from my children to this day. The whole lower level of her house, Dad had updated it with cabinets and furniture, and she had a low table set up with little chairs, and when our children came, she’d tied an old apron around their neck to keep their clothes clean, and let em go!

“And they made everything, from chicken, fish, ceramics – I have to show you one of your Dad’s. My Dad was very quiet and it was good that he was, because she was just the opposite and when she did something he liked, he just smiled, and it was okay.

“Her grandchildren were the most important thing to her in her life. She was a wonderful mother and a very good grandmother…Its almost embarrassing.”





“Has this place been remodeled?” I asked my mom as we arrived at my favorite restaurant in the bay area, Berkeley’s La Méditerranée. The interior had never struck me as especially noteworthy before, but on this day it seemed like a palace, with shining mosaics, vases of wildflowers and polished wooden furniture. “No, its the same as always,” she answered.

It was Gabe and I’s first meal back in America, and I was a broken record. “It’s just so…nice” *scarfing down food* “It’s just so, so nice in here.” This would be one of many themes during our 5 weeks. Its not to say that Cambodia restaurants in Cambodia aren’t also so, so nice, but its generally a different kind of charm, one that involves making the best with what’s available.

Stepping outside of my mom’s house in Alameda, Gabe’s mom’s house in Portland, my grandmother’s house in Collinsville, I often felt my breath catch in my throat just from the sight of clean, clear sidewalks. The sense of spaciousness was overwhelming, poetically so. The air was so cool, not crushingly hot. More than sightseeing, sharing meals or hanging out in bars, Gabe and I just walked. We walked for hours at a time, leaving in the morning and coming back in the evening. It felt like the most luxurious thing we could possibly do.


Arriving wasn’t euphoric, the way I expected it to be. I felt a bit manic, delirious. I also felt somewhat removed from my friend’s and family. I had to gradually thaw out and warm to them, like a suspicious frozen chicken cutlet sitting on a plate by the kitchen window. It didn’t take long, but it was unsettling. This new environment was a little alien, and so that rubbed off on them as well.  Departing was far more intense. Holding back tears in the security line, I wondered if the TSA would think that I was nervous, maybe smuggling something.

Paranoia. That was present too. Fear that I would forget laws, or that there would be new ones that I didn’t know about. Gabe wanted to drink a beer while we walked on the beach at Point Reyes and after a few seconds of wondering why that didn’t seem right, I remembered and reminded him that open containers in public are illegal in California. He had completely forgotten.

There seemed to be a baffling number of options. In Cambodia, most bars have one beer on tap: Cambodia Beer. You might splurge and pick up a can of ABC or Black Panther, which costs almost double, if you just can’t take the bland golden lager any more. In Portland, we were kids in a candy store, or more realistically, lushes in a brewery. Mead made from honey and cherries! Raspberry cider! Frosty Hefeweisen’s served in a goblet!

Smoked gouda. Crackers peppered with seeds. Goat’s milk cheese. Other kinds of cheese. Endless novelty, endless choices. Eating an artichoke with mayo felt like a religious experience.

You pay for all these delicacies and it was no surprise that America seemed tremendously expensive. Money woes were weighing heavily on many people’s minds, and that’s understandable, especially for those struggling with debt (which seems to be almost everyone). However its noteworthy how much stuff people have, how much luxury. I was amazed by how many things I had left behind in the basement. Jewelry and books and clothing that I had once thought of as nothing special now seemed like absolute treasures.

A shower with hot water, what a treat. Even a sink with hot water – good luck finding one of those in Cambodia.  Laundry machines, such convenience. In Kampot the whole street came out to watch when we had a “regular” sit-down toilet delivered, meant to replace the squat toilet. To our neighbors it was a strange extravagance.

Instead of the usual tuk tuk, we took a taxi from the way back from the airport to our hotel in Phnom Penh, loaded down as we were with extra luggage and boxes from home. As we walked through the gate with our stuff, the sky cracked and a monsoon began, spitting great funnels of rain. It was past midnight and we sat under the awning of the hotel for awhile.  The hotel’s little black puppy cowered under the bar, frightened by the thunder. I watched the lightening streak across the sky and felt, overall, very rich.


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Lost and Found

moto4Freelancing naturally ebbs and flows. Feast or famine. When work is slow, it can be especially difficult to stay out of the cafes and bars, yukking it up with travelers, friends and local eccentrics. In a town as quiet as Kampot, projects are vital to maintaining some sense of energy and forward momentum.

Soon after we moved into our apartment, Gabe bought his second moto, a beat up, Road Warrior-esque Honda CD 50 cc.  He took out the engine and replaced it with a 117 cc engine, making an air filter out of a sawed off ABC beer can and wrapping the handlebars with the army green straps from our old hammock. I was getting pretty hot to paint it after having recently painted both of our moto helmets.

helmet1We debated about what to paint on the gas can: a charging bull, a pair of crows, a cobra. But Gabe settled on a rat skeleton, due to the bike’s scrappy appearance and small size. I drew a design on paper and traced it onto carbon paper, transferring it onto the gas tank and then painting it on with acrylic and black enamel. A layer of clear coat and the “rat bike” was born.




moto2Kampot has been a godsend as a place to recharge creatively. Its peaceful. Many people feel that its beautiful but that it gets boring quickly. Most travelers only come for a couple of days to visit the pepper plantation, snap a few pictures of the abandoned casino on Bokor Mountain and dip their toes in the river. There are a handful of Khmer night clubs and karaoke joints across the river that cater mainly to men and as far as I can tell, only 2 live music acts are based out of the town.

I was in trying to dig my way out of a deep creative rut when we moved to Cambodia. For the last year before we moved, I couldn’t get excited about what I was making. It was starting to scare me. I had pursued art with a single-minded devotion for years and suddenly I wasn’t feeling it. I couldn’t tap into that that glorious vein, that focused, rich stream where you lose yourself in the task of making marks on paper.


Leaving the country broke away many assumptions I held about how I had to be, and therefore helped shift my ideas about what my art could be. I’m discovering a real satisfaction in making art that interacts with other things, in beautifying by embellishing. Even with something as simple as stickers, which can go out into the world and peek out from behind a mirror, or add character to a luggage set or refrigerator.

nat_stick_2I painted a second mural, this time on the front column at Moi Tiet. I used the same drawing from my moto helmet, sketching it out with chalk and painting it with our leftover yellow housepaint, spray paint and matte black acrylic. It was a surprise to see how much its character changed when transferred to a new environment. Learning about tattooing has been very informative on how placement, negative space and shape influences the final product.

The piece was quick and painless. Afterwards I could hardly contain my excitement, not just because I was happy with how it came out, but because it was much needed confirmation that I am finding my way into the stream again, and god, I have missed it.