The Mind Is a Butcher, or To Savor Travel’s Scraps

by Keith Savage · 15 comments

Cutting Board and Cleaver


A cleaver sinks into a wooden block stained with a spectrum of red. Bits of gristle and flesh shoot out from the impact in tiny arcs.


A rough hand rotates, adjusts, and flips the carcass as the blade flashes down, an arbiter of division.


The bird dissolves into quarters. Seconds later the cutting board is fringed by cast-off slivers of meat marbled with fat.


The breast bone is peeled away with a soft sucking sound. And the noise stops. Fingers leave rusty trails as they’re dragged across an apron. Two perfectly unfettered hunks of breast meat slightly wobble in the company of drumsticks, thighs, and wings. One rough hand sweeps the scraps into another, and, with a nonchalant flick of the wrist, casts all of the succulent context into the refuse pile. A bird that clucked and strutted, that fanned its dirty white feathers out in greeting or warning, had been reduced and simplified to this.

Apologies to my vegetarian readers, but stay with me – it’s a metaphor.

A few weeks back I came across a link to Alain de Botton’s blog. He had written a post about the overwhelming tide of distraction that we face in the 21st Century and its devastating effects on our ability to sit still and think. The message resonated with me, and after poking around his site I found that he’d written a book called The Art of Travel. I finished that book yesterday, and it will assume a spot on my bookshelf as required reading for the Traveling Savage philosophy I’m incidentally developing.

In The Art of Travel, de Botton analyzes each stage of the travel process and uses famous people from the past to guide his narrative. Being just a day away from leaving for Argentina, I read his section on anticipation with rapt attention. de Botton points out:

…If we are inclined to forget how much there is in the world besides that which we anticipate, then works of art are perhaps a little to blame, for in them we find at work the same process of simplification or selection as in the imagination…

In preparing for a trip, our minds create a simple outline of anticipated milestones, expectations really, as a kind of shorthand comprehension. Art in the context of this quote refers to painting, but it could just as easily apply to writing and by extension memory. The brain, presented with cascades of information in the present, builds a narrative from a choosy disposition. Like a butcher choosing his cuts of meat, so, too, the mind ruthlessly and efficiently chooses our memories of travel. But let’s give the old brain a break. It’s just doing its job, right? It has evolved to ensure our survival; unnecessary information coming in through our senses, far from being remembered, are barely even registered. The richness of experience is invisibly pared down to the most basic, “relevant” facts.

de Botton expands on the idea when he points out:

…The anticipatory and artistic imaginations omit and compress; they cut away the periods of boredom and direct our attention to critical moments, and thus, without either lying or embellishing, they lend to life a vividness and a coherence that it may lack in the distracting woolliness of the present…

The distracting woolliness of the present. This is how the brain would characterize it, inundated with information and struggling to build that narrative of critical moments. Ironically, it’s in this “woolliness” where beauty and essence and flavor, so often unanticipated, ignored, and unremembered, largely exist. The job of anyone interested in the longevity and richness of experience, from homebody to casual traveler to hardcore travel writer, is to focus on this cloud of minutiae de Botton calls “woolliness.”

Last night Sarah presented me with a small photo booklet to bring with me on my travels. It’s the kind of thing that automatically creates smiles and tears. She also handed me a bunch of photos from which to choose, including one from our stay in Vejer de la Frontera, Spain. We had a wonderful time there, especially at a restaurant known for its homemade rums called La Chozita. It’s a bright memory, but indistinct – we had very few photos of the place and I hadn’t seen one in years. Looking at the photo, I was shocked by everything I didn’t recall: the empty streets, the low lighting amplified by the white-washed walls, the rectangular plate filled with tapas, the enormous size of the mojitos. I remembered mostly that we loved the mojitos. That’s not good enough.

I believe in the importance of details and context, of catching the cutting board scraps and soup bones. The relationship with the mind’s reflexive tendencies need not be adversarial. As I embark on my journey to Argentina, the first of eight one-month trips around the world, I will allow my mind to do what it does best: find the perfect cuts. My days and nights will be spent attending to the scraps, so that, whatever “dish” I prepare, you’ll perceive every last strut and cluck along the way.

Original photos by Sean Rogers1 and (nz)dave via Flickr under Creative Commons

PNR StatusNo Gravatar November 15, 2010 at 6:25 AM

Nice post.Yes, the photo book will serve just that purpose. Having it now, I think it’s hugely important.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 15, 2010 at 8:19 PM

Having it has been really great.

Zablon MukubaNo Gravatar November 10, 2010 at 1:16 AM

your first paragraphs could be rewritten for a horror movie

Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 10, 2010 at 11:14 AM

Hey Zablon, thanks…I think. πŸ™‚

ClaireNo Gravatar November 9, 2010 at 4:26 PM

I’m liking the analogy, despite its graphic nature πŸ˜‰ And a big “awwwwwwwwwwwww” from on the photo book from Sarah!

ClaireNo Gravatar November 9, 2010 at 4:26 PM

ps, when do you leave?

Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 10, 2010 at 9:54 AM

I’ve left. In Buenos Aires now.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 10, 2010 at 11:13 AM

Yeah, the photo book keeps moisten my eyes.

AndiNo Gravatar November 9, 2010 at 9:22 AM

Haha, I was waiting for an apology to us veggies!!! πŸ˜‰

I wish you nothing but the most amazing journey into a country that means the world to me. I can’t wait to hear about your adventures and misadventures. I have no doubt you will leave a changed man.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 10, 2010 at 11:13 AM

Haha, Sarah mentioned it was very graphic so I added the apology after the original publication πŸ™‚

Thanks for the well-wishes Andi!

EricaNo Gravatar November 9, 2010 at 12:55 AM

I don’t think that everyone is at the point where nothing is appreciated, where everything is blamed on ADD and… wanna ride bikes?

Some of us just have a better memory than others as well. Shaun remembers our trips abroad as a very general memory, while, for instance, I remember waking up on our honeymoon in Barbados, remembering the singing birds, the fresh breeze running through our room at daybreak, while hearing the mango trees sway – giving us an aromatic wake up call. Shaun remembers none of this. Some of us do. πŸ˜›

But then again, I was one of the few people who took advantage of the seats during the French Renaissance Masters museum showing in Houston a few years back. Everyone looked and quickly made their way through. I sat, contemplated, wept, while simultaneously dealing with the loud squeals of children and old people wearing too much perfume. πŸ˜›

Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 10, 2010 at 11:11 AM

I’m jealous, Erica. You have a trait that travel writers covet. As you can see, I struggle with it and so I need to write posts like these to help me remember.

AndrewNo Gravatar November 8, 2010 at 3:33 PM

Neat post, though I admit some of the quotes seem to go over my head. I usually take that as meaning I am not ready to understand them. I like your text as always though. Does it boil down to “take time to smell the roses” sort of thing, or am I missing something?

I take it the photobook is something you can take with you to remind you of the important things in your life even amid all of the newness and wild travel bits? That sounds like a good thing, both to look at in times of stress and perhaps as a talking guide to someone that asks “so what( or why) are you doing this?”

Woah.. one day til you leave. Full congrats on approaching your dreams boldly. I lend my thoughts and well wishes on your travel.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 10, 2010 at 11:04 AM

Thanks Andrew. You boil it down pretty effectively. A small added twist is to make yourself conscious of the fact you’re smelling the roses.

Yes, the photo book will serve just that purpose. Having it now, I think it’s hugely important.

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