Anthony Bourdain: My Disruptive Inspiration in Math Education

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This is my third and final article about Anthony Bourdain’s influence on me as a person and math educator.

There are probably over 100 images I could have used for the thumbnail for this article. No exaggeration. I could have used a 70’s black and white picture of young chef, unsure of his place in the world, with a cigarette dangling at the proper Keith Richards angle of 45 degrees. I could have used some of his last pictures, which definitely show the physical toll that his losing battle of depression was having on him. They are hard to look at, but like all of them, they are crushing vignettes of the truth that Bourdain showed the world for 40 years.

In the end, I wanted to find a picture of him smiling, and having companionship with someone and somewhere that encapsulated his love of traveling — anywhere. A picture that explicitly an implicitly expressed his comfort to show the humanity of our world as it should exist everywhere.

We all got to travel with Anthony. We all got to grow with Anthony. His early Cooks Tour shows had more of his young, rock and roll swagger — both in apparel and in language. The shows were definitely more about him and the food. But, the grace and gratitude of being able to be around people from all walks of life, and share meals from them, he always mentioned with poetic sharpness.

The picture below is from Season 1 of The Cook’s Tour. Bourdain is in his favorite country in the world, Vietnam. He is eating a simple duck dinner on the ground with a large family deep in the Mekong Delta. The night has fallen. He has probably consumed many shots of the home brew that was dispensed out of a plastic cola bottle. He offers this reflection:

As it gets dark, and there is a single light bulb, you know you are deep, deep, deep in the bush, there is this singular, riveting, beautiful moment during this whole meal. A man sings a heartbreakingly, earnest song.

It’s absolutely enchanting.

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His final show, Parts Unknown, had Bourdain disrobe completely from his younger self. While his observation and listening skills took centre stage, he himself, faded into the humility and humanness that defined him in the end.

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The quote above has definitely become my compass as a math educator. Every word of it. Nobody will ever be a better ambassador for the curiosity of travel and the required fearlessness and openness that comes partially preinstalled. And, for me, nobody will ever be a better inspiration to be a better math educator.

In fact, Bourdain’s presence in my math books has only grown stronger. And, in my third book, “Chasing Rabbits: A Curious Guide to a Lifetime of Mathematical Wellness”, he gets deserved attention as the title of the book reflects the ethos that Bourdain had towards food, travel, and people.

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I met Anthony Bourdain in 2005 at a book signing in Toronto. He was already pretty famous. The wait was about 90 minutes. When it was my turn, I was the one rushing the conversation, not wanting to take up anymore time than 30 to 45 seconds. Bourdain was affable, engaging, and wholly gracious. He got excited when I started talking about CBGB’s in New York. I told him a few bands to check out. I have never forgotten that moment. The valuable lesson I got from that day was to give gobs of grace and gratitude when you meet people — and talk to them as yourself, shielded from any notoriety and fame.

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Bourdain was a refreshing slice of candor, edge, vulnerability, and emotional toughness and softness in his storytelling. That is why when he died on June 8, 2018, millions from around the world were visibly affected by his passing. It is the hardest death I have had to deal with in my life. I have hundreds of memories from his shows that are excruciatingly pointed and poetic that capture seconds of human experiences, each a primer for living as an intrepid explorer and a person of immense kindness.

The same way Bourdain saw food, travel, and people is exactly the same way that I see mathematics. Be unbridled in your love for mathematics, its history, and its people. Share this with others in storytelling that is captivating and accessible. Have them have beautiful memories of the world of numbers, patterns, symmetry, and shapes.

Make people — all people — curious and passionate about the world of mathematics.

Thank you, Anthony. I will always love and be inspired by your life.

Author of Pi of Life: The Hidden Happiness of Mathematics and Co-Author of Math Recess: Playful Learning in the Age of Disruption. Speaker. Amplify and Mathigon

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