Commentary: Forever Young

By Louis A. Zona

I completely understand why some of our high school classmates avoid reunions, particularly the 25- year-plus variety. My last high school reunion depressed me for two weeks.

I don’t know what I expected, but the shock of seeing our class cheerleaders, homecoming queen and class adviser – and how unkind nature had been to all of us – was more than I could bear.

Imagine. I had to reintroduce myself to our class president and to think that we ate at the same lunch table for three years. So whoever had the great idea of creating lapel labels with our high school photos was the woman of the hour.

Otherwise I would have no clue as to whom I was talking to about reading glasses. The theme that night centered on hip replacement surgeries, cute grandchildren and arthritis medications.

But what really worked on my psyche was that the aging process had hit my classmates like a bag of rocks. Gone were the wrinkle free faces. Gone were the great physiques. And gone were the great heads of hair. It was brutal to say the least!

One of the most important paintings in the collection of the Butler Institute of American Art is a work by Ivan Lorraine Albright, an unforgettable self portrait painted in 1930. The painting presents the image of a decaying Albright, an amazingly surreal depiction of the artist himself.

In this haunting work, the artist’s skin looks as though a horrible disease had attacked it. Because no other artist was capable of showing decaying humanity as convincingly as Albright, he was asked to paint the portraits seen in the classic ’30s film, “The Portrait of Dorian Gray.”

In the film, a young aristocratic gentleman known for his exceedingly good looks makes a public wish that he eventually came to regret. He wished that the portrait painted of him should age, but not him.

Well, he got his wish as the portrait slowly aged into old age and he maintained his good looks. But what he experienced as he watched his friends and family become older and older was complete despair as he maintained his youthful looks. He may have looked young, but seeing the slow death of those that he loved and not being able to identify with the youthful personalities that were a part of his never changing world ultimately destroyed him.

Ivan Albright’s portraits in the film of an ever-aging Dorian Gray helped to make the film a classic.

I have been doing a lot of thinking during this sheltering process and believe that eventually a vaccine will be developed to end this nightmare. I am extremely optimistic that one of the dozens of teams of scientists working on a solution will solve the problem.

But I also think that these same scientists will open other doors along the way and eventually uncover the secret to aging. These brilliant men and women will uncover a cure for the virus and in the process ultimately eradicate the gene that turns us from vigorous youngsters to folks who long to fall asleep on the couch.

It happens to all of us as we remember that day when we come to the realization that we are no longer young. For me it took place in a shoe store in New York City. I walked slowly through the store that I had visited so often. The two salesmen were standing behind the counter engaged in conversation.

One of the fellows, looking at me, said, “Excuse me sir, since you’ve been on the Earth a helluva lot longer than us, what do you think …”

I was so disturbed by the first part of his question that I don’t remember what he was asking about. I kept thinking of his words about being on the earth for so much longer than the two of them.

Up to that moment I would have thought that I was every bit as young and youthful looking as the two salesmen. It was a blow to my ego. But it also was the beginning of my obsession with the aging process.

For one thing, I can’t believe that I am so much older than the ballplayers I watch hitting, fielding and throwing. In my mind, I can go onto that field and chase down fly balls like Willy Mays and drive the ball out of the park like Mickey Mantle.

OK, I guess that I really don’t believe that. But I do believe that I would not totally embarrass myself if I ran onto the field with glove and bat in hand.

I have been teaching a class at Youngstown State University on the history of modern art for decades. I love sharing with senior art majors the story of art and the various “isms” that we connect with the art of the 20th century.

As I analyze my rationale for wanting to continue to teach the class despite the fact that I am certainly old enough to retire, I conclude that it is my way to feel as though I am not aging.

Every term, every year, I stand in front of 20-year-olds. It’s as if I am not aging, that time is standing still.  

Still, get out of my way, Father Time, or I’ll run you over with my Jeep or club you with your own sickle. And I mean it.