Sukiyabashi Jiro is a Michelin three-star restaurant in Japan. As documented in the film, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, owner Jiro Ono has devoted his life to perfecting his restaurant’s fare. This quest has lead him to discover details like the precise amount of time an octopus should be massaged before it is prepped to serve (half an hour). While some might find raw seafood kind of straightforward, to Jiro, everything about it is endlessly fascinating. According to David Rees, though, anything can be about as interesting to you as sushi is to Jiro–all you have to do is pay attention.
Let’s take pencil sharpening, for example. Before creating the show, Going Deep With David Rees, airing Mondays on National Geographic, Rees learned practically all a person could about pencil sharpening. He started a business around pencil sharpening and even wrote a book on the subject. (How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical & Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, & Civil Servants.) Looking at that title, one might assume this interest is a put-on; that the idea of investing so much thought and energy into such a mundane topic is one big, drawn-out joke premise. But as Going Deep proves, turning an intensely thorough gaze on ordinary things is Rees’s path to enlightenment.
“Usually, sharpening a pencil is just a utilitarian practice but I wanted to explore it in terms of how much satisfaction it brings,” Rees says, of his first foray into extreme fascination. “I wanted to celebrate pencils as amazing communication tools that are so ubiquitous you don’t even think of them. I wanted to make that whole world strange, so people would think about it again in a new way.”
Now that he’s perhaps sufficiently evangelized pencil sharpening, Going Deep is the former political cartoonist’s episodic ode to thinking about other common stuff in new ways. On the show, he consults experts who are passionate about traditionally humdrum things to explore how they’re quietly miraculous. It’s a show where viewers will learn what flipping a coin reveals about physics, randomness, and entropy, among other revelations.
“When you think about it, shoelaces and knots especially are amazing,” Rees says. “Knots are basically tiny machines that you make out of string, which is a really crazy innovation.”
The host says he takes some cues from Mr. Rogers’s natural curiosity and eagerness to learn–but then Mr. Rogers never nearly accosted his tiny guests because their enthusiasm became wildly contagious, as is often the case in Going Deep. Rees feeds off of his experts’ excitement, and indeed one of the major themes of the show is that we all can and should apply this kind of excitement to some areas we take for granted.
“One of my favorite things is to go to a party and meet somebody who is super passionate about something I’ve never considered,” he says. “It doesn’t even matter what the topic is. What’s valuable is the interest itself–the mental attitude and enthusiasm people bring to things. I don’t think there’s anything that’s inherently uninteresting.”
Below, see how we put that theory to the test.
I asked David Rees how he would approach the topic of toothpaste if he were to take an interest in it beyond using it to keep his bicuspids clean. He promptly came up with these five angles off the top of his head.
1. The Danger of Teeth
Teeth are really crazy and weird and the idea I’ve heard from dentists that a problem with your tooth can kill you if it’s untreated is incredible and kind of suggests how different systems within your body interact with each other and interact with the whole in a way that you might not imagine. You get a tooth infection, it spreads, and then I don’t know what happens but you have a hemorrhage and die, your heart explodes or your feet fall off.
2. Animal Dentistry
The idea that we are so evolutionarily advanced, relative to tigers and lions, but still consume food in the same basic way–by tearing into their flesh with our teeth–suggests these weird kind of unsettling evolutionary consistencies that cause us to spend a lot of energy denying we’re still connected to the animal world.
3. Dental Care Through the Ages
Obviously, there’s the history of dental care and how medieval dental care could not have been fun for the patients–yanking teeth out and stuff.
4. Indigenous Alternatives to Toothpaste
What do people do when they don’t have access to Crest or Aquafresh? A lot of times, I think they rub leaves on their teeth or scrape the gunk off with a stick. When I lived in Boston with a bunch of guys, and one of them did not buy toothpaste. He just used baking soda. He would put baking soda on a toothbrush and just rub it on his teeth.
5. Taste Science
The minty fresh flavor of toothpaste has nothing to do with cleaning your teeth–that was a decision made because those kind of sweet bright flavors suggest cleanliness, it’s like a psychological thing. I don’t really love sweet tastes so I might do a savory, like a sour cream and onions flavored toothpaste. They’d get my teeth just as clean, but it would be a different kind of fresh feeling afterward.