Today, we feature Joe Bonomo, a fellow Ohio University alum and blogger. His essays and prose poems appear recently in The Normal School, Fourth Genre, Brevity, New Ohio Review, Hotel Amerika, and Center. He’s the author of AC/DC’s Highway to Hell (33 1/3 Series), Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found, Installations (National Poetry Series), and Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band. He teaches at Northern Illinois University. Visit him at No Such Thing As Was.
ABSTRACTING MY DAD
There are two worlds: the world we can measure with line and rule, and the world that we feel with our hearts and imagination. To be sensible of the truth of only one of these, is to know truth but by halves. ~ James Henry Leigh Hunt
He was 11 or 12, the son of a day laborer, a little Italian kid browsing an oversized book about mathematics in his neighborhood public library in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He paused at a page devoted to the Integral, and something about the curve of the classical form, the inscrutable but familiar nature of it, grabbed him. Fascinated, and in a kind of pre-teen bravado, he determined that one day he’d master the meaning of this math symbol. Fast forward: graduate school at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and he’s befuddled at the Wonder Bread placed on the table at the local Italian restaurant, but he’ll find his studies engrossing, especially the math courses involving integral calculus. He’ll soon get a job at IBM, and for decades will make wide use of integral calculus while working on NASA’s unmanned scientific spacecraft program, with navigation, meteorology, astronomical, and earth-survey satellites, ballistic missile defense systems, telecommunication systems, highly classified military intelligence systems, launch vehicle payload weight analysis and allocation, geosynchronous orbit analysis, system reliability analysis, and Global Positioning Satellites. He’d raise a family. Among his brood one son became a mathematics professor, one an engineer, one a telecommunications lawyer. And one who can’t shake loose from his memory an abstract painting called Broken Integral.
I have five siblings. The moment my oldest brother was able to look after my youngest, my parents vaulted to a neighborhood restaurant, the first time they’d been out, alone, in years, and this became a weekly ritual that has lasted for decades. Sometimes while my parents were away, my older brothers and sister converted the basement into “Magic Night.” Lowered fluorescent lights. A dramatically thrown flashlight beam. Some eerie music playing from a scratchy LP. Home from the restaurant, my parents would be our audience, and ooh and ahh and clap with parental largess. A paint easel stood in a corner of the basement, and for one of the illusions, one of us would untie a coat hanger and secure one end around a paint brush while another would grip the other end and lurk behind the white-vinyl curtain that separated the basement from my dad’s work space (One year, in what seemed to me like creating fire, he built a television set from a kit, the conjuring of a soldering iron, an oscilloscope, and some circuit boards.) Our invisible painter moved his brush back and forth across a propped canvas. We dubbed him “Vincent Van Gone.” My parents duly applauded. I had to go to bed soon after.
More than a comic prop, this easel became a locus. Resting on it for many years was an odd, intense painting created by my dad, a lifetime mathematician, a man seduced and charmed by the ways of numbers, the hard, cruel circuit of spaceflight, and the objections of infinity. I’ve always been struck by the surreal sadness of the piece, originating as it did in a burst of inspiration. At IBM one afternoon, talking with my uncle about painting, my dad suddenly had the desire to paint. He rushed home — the image fully formed already — and put the composition together quickly. The lurid colors, the broiling, setting-sun vanishing point (I always see the sun setting, not rising), the tumbling Infinity symbol, the unmoored and wandering “O” at the bottom corner, the fractured Integral symbol itself: the mood is forcefully disturbed, and unhappy. My dad is not an unhappy man. For many years, the contrasts between his temperamental conservatism and the bleakness of the painting, his love of numbers and systems, and the curious content of this image led to an unknown: my dad’s shadowy, emotional life. An integral completes, forms a unit; his commingling of rational mathematics and irrational art-making, the rigidity of numerals, and the wandering of the imagination surprised and moved me.
Recently I asked my dad about the painting, and he confessed to me that he later decided that Disenchantment would have made for a more fitting title. I guess the beauty, mystery, and intrigue of the integral faded over the years, he said. Recently when I was in Williamsburg I looked for that book that he loved as a kid, but the library at Leonard and Devoe Streets had long been remodeled, re-shelved, re-catalogued. The book is gone.