What the Mouse Knows

Consider the little mouse, how sage an animal it is which never entrusts its life to one hole only.

— Titus Maccius Plautus

It is not down in any map; true places never are.

— Ishmael, Moby Dick

I am fond of the mouse. Everywhere beset by larger powers, he succeeds with a wisdom of his own. He prospers by careful study of the world, and his profit is the knowledge overlooked by the bigger creatures. Humans may have built the house, but it is the mouse who knows all its passages. There is forever an unknown world within the known, forever more to uncover, and here is a creature dedicated to finding the cracks in reality. We would do well to learn from him, to cultivate seeing.

The world is too large for us also, so it is made legible with scripts and maps. That you must finish high school, that you cannot do anything meaningful until you do. That you ought to go to college. That you must move out and get an apartment. That moving out means getting an apartment. Such scripts can be very small: The word “entertainment” evokes an almost identical and very narrow set of activities, even in people who are not particularly fond of those activities. The word, and therefore the idea, has been co-opted towards a life script in miniature.

I give only simple examples. The maps and scripts that are the most pernicious are the most subtle, because they have us unconsciously constraining our own lives. The words and concepts we see repeated the most become our intellectual borders. Each script is barely consequential on its own, but in aggregate, the familiar grooves made by them pile up, and we forget how to see.

Script: At some point you must move out and get an apartment. A lazy objection: Who said that you have to move out? A better objection: Who said you have to get an apartment? The common idea of apartment hunting has many downsides, it puts you in competition with all the other people looking for apartments on both selection and price. So I have always tried to avoid that fate: Instead for many years I rented an idle house (it was not for rent, but the owner wanted to sell in a few years), and sub-rented rooms to friends and new acquaintances. Other years I lived in the skylit attic of a older lady (who I met by paying for coffee), for a very reasonable sum, if only I would renovate it a little.

These kinds of places were not on the market, not advertised or aggregated, which is another way of saying they were not on any map. Instead they were the true things that Ishmael spoke of. Aggregators are a map, they show some of what is available, and one must always be conscious when handling maps. It is easy to mistake them for all there is.

I hope you are careful enough to understand that this is not about apartments!

The the point of maps, guides, and scripts is to distill important information, though in practice it usually means to distill only easy-to-access information. All summaries are compression, and learning to see means looking for the valuable things that are lost in compression. Prosperity is found in seeking the asymmetries in a world that is forever being painted with artificial symmetry.

~ ~ ~

The mouse finds another asymmetry: Several hiding places are better than one. He makes many small bets, and the payoff is saving his own life. People take too few risks, especially asymmetric risks, but most of all they leave too little room for surprise. Leave room for little bets, little detours, little discoveries, little well-wishings, little letters. Think of how I met the old lady. Leave a little accommodation for things you do not yet understand. Cultivate a ritual enough and you may find something else.

The pessimist is an unobservant man. The mouse therefore is an optimist. What are the scripts of this world that don’t sit quite right? What asymmetries have been hidden away? I mention only popular ones. What are the treasures obscured, if only from lack of looking?

When the humans are asleep, the mouse finds the cheerios. Well, the entire world is lulled to sleep these days. If you search, what secrets will you find?

I hope I have not been so hasty that the words don’t come out right. All the doors are not yet open between us. Another time perhaps I will tell you more. Walk a little for the love of god and of me.

Your mouse,

s s