Cote St Luc. July 1993. A hot, humid summer of (seeking) love. I’m 17. And just graduated from Wagar High School – one of the ‘so-called’ best in Quebec – which, sadly, was slipping into history’s dustbin due to a mad social-engineering experiment enacted by our principal, Syd Wise.
Still, the social marxist matrix aside…
My pimples were under control. My Luke-Perry-esque coiffure was at its Landing-Pad apex. My ears were finally close to being proportionate to my head. And all this was (I thought) contributing to the fact that I was actually landing dates with members of the opposite sex.
And years before Uber was to become the world’s main mode of transportation, I was the proud owner of a non-electric, non-hybrid, gas gusseling, suped-up red n’ white-striped Honda convertible eye-sore. An added feature of this particular automobile was how it so endeared me to our local anglophone-hating, corrupt and mentally infantile ‘Sûreté du Québec’. After all, I was keeping them employed, challenging them to come up with new and imaginative excuses to ticket and harass me. Revenge for James Wolfe, no doubt.
Those tickets would eventually stop when I did the smart thing and moved my extracurricular activities (drinking, eating and womanizing) to Little Italy — where our Sicilian and Calabrian expat community had an ‘understanding’ with the Police to ‘screw off’, for which I’m sure they were well compensated and threatened, in equal measure.
I was also adored by the owner of famed Paris-Texas— a boutique where I would both work as manager and spend every last cent I earned on a multitude of overpriced Italian-made Diesel jackets and associated pop-cult paraphernalia. Renzo Rosso was my God. An expensive hobby no doubt, but as the Diesel catalogue commanded, ‘looking good is feeling good’. And I was a true believer.
Employed and dressed for ‘Beyond the Valley of Le Mans’, I was about to enter the adult world, a magical unpronounceable place called the “Collège d’Enseignement Général et Professionnel” or “CEGEP”. And I was there to confront a wide world of infinite possibilities.
CEGEP offered programs for university hopefuls pursuing ‘professions’ as well as vocational students seeking jobs like auto-mechanic, deejay or clerking with the notorious ‘Office Québécois de la Langue Française’ (aka, “The Language Police”).
In Montreal, unlike the rest of the universe, CEGEP claims you for two years, and then university does so for three. Our Canadian double-feature college-five made for a ton of fun when applying and squeezing into the American-four. Les Americains neither care (nor understand) why Marie Antoinette’s degree is not like that of thee (or he).
And so I selected a Diesel jacket and my destiny, arriving and enrolling at the majestic Dawson College campus. And as luck would have it, this was just two blocks away from my grandparents’ posh Chateau Westmount condo, where my Grandmother kindly fed delicious lunches to me, built on ingredients from Les Cinq Saisons (excellent muffins btw). And yes, they had valet…And yes, I know. Poor me.
What more could a mildly spoiled, witty, aspirational ‘Ferris Bueller’ aficionado ask for? My ‘Day Off’ was just beginning.
Degree-wise, Dawson offered a two-year Humanities program in Social Science which would pave a way forward to the prestigious ‘reputation’ of the McGill University Political Science Department, and, from there, a short step to the law degree that my family dreamed of and in which I had absolutely zero interest.
Our CEGEP system was sort of logical though. Not all students pursue higher education to the ends of eternity. But a two-year goof-off opportunity before work life or university begins—which was what my friends did, and what I wanted—seemed like a perfect plan.
But plans can change, especially when you select the right classes for the wrong reasons. That was easy at Dawson—since the Soviet-inspired computer-phone-class-selection was as unpredictable as a Japanese-language map of the Tokyo Subway System. In fact, I continue to have ‘Dawson’ nightmares where I end up at either the wrong class or miss classes altogether, leading to my inevitable failure in life.
Secretly, I knew what I wanted to study. Something creative, without a doubt. (Film/Animation/Media/Design?) But I didn’t know how or where to proceed. I half-believed in the ‘Code of my Elders’, one intoned with a voice-from-a-desert-outcropping expressiveness in a Biblical epic: ‘Thou shalt not enjoy’–meaning that anything ‘you loved’ would be an unrealistic life-choice. In other words, not ‘real work’.
This code of drudgery, rocket-launched at my head by certain family members, was, at the same time, covertly subverted by my grandparents. While some spouted “realism” at the family table, they silently stocked my bedroom with comics, graphic novels and an occasional actual book: the odd, yet exciting fantasies of Stanley Martin Lieber (Stan “The Man” Lee!); the warping, nerdy-dream fodder of Steve Ditko, the heroic Idealism of Jack Kirby and Leiji Matsumoto – the utterly unrealistic, models and aspirations of fantastic lives . . . except for people like Haruki Murakami and 17-year-old dressed-for-the-Grand-Prix me. And my grandparents? On the road to Damascus, perhaps what they were whispering was this: choose your own adventure.
And those fantasy worlds were indeed subversive. They contained stories about heroes and villains. Achievement and destruction. The sublime (Mary Jane) and the incredible (Hulk). And they were about something. Life as it could, should and ought to be.
And this was my gateway drug. From the mighty-Marvel universe to anime to cult cinema and sci-fi and pulp novels and Playboy Magazine (which I both read and looked at, and not in that order). For my life was about to become a 3D-episode of Mutual of Omaha’s ‘really’ Wild Kingdom. Because I wanted to know and experience…everything. As long as it was (mostly) legal, of course.
In the past, the big existential questions had been answered by my family’s semi-religious (mostly cultural) beliefs and PBS (thank you Bill Moyers, Big Bird, Judy Blume and Mr. Rogers). That was it. But stories led elsewhere. And I was becoming, by way of an emerging ‘inner me’, very vocal in the selection of what I liked (and did not like), a natural, youthful opponent of any idea that I was ‘forced’ to believe. But this ‘attitude problem’ (as it was called) would be helped along by an affirmation of something that I did believe.
Here was a start: California, yes. Law, no. Filles Californiennes, Oui! Legale, Non! (This would result in my attending The Brooks Institute of Photography after graduating from McGill with a wholly useless Joint Major in Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies)
But back to Dawson, where my curiosity knew no bounds but my desire to actually work hard was heavily tempered by another desire. To chill out in the cafeteria (or sneak into the classes not my own) and hit on numerous Italian women imported from the outskirt suburbs of St. Leonard. (Like Franca DeSanto…the object of my Calabrian affection)
But reality bites, and so I picked-up the phone and selected my first classes from an annoyed female-HAL 9000. Something that I could preferably breeze through without having to lift a book or a finger. BS favorites like mythology, philosophy, sociology, Buddhism, cinema, feminism, English (I spoke that!). I fancied myself an expert at talking my way into or out of just about anything. I argued and debated, even when I didn’t quite know what I was talking about which probably contributed to my family’s instance on law as career choice. I was like an early version of Wikipedia, making things up as I went merrily along. And I was often right. But sometimes not.
The goal at hand was to get through Dawson, and, somehow, find a way to my cinema-envisioned California or Italy or Japan, pursuing my as-yet-unformed creative dreams. At a minimum, I wished for an end to freezing my Canadian ass-off every winter. And anything to escape from Montreal, with its stifling Government-centric Franco-Marxist-obeisance culture cult. But these aspirations meant more than just getting through. 5 years was a long prison sentence. So I was after something more—a path that would inform and inspire.
ENTER THE LUTZY
When I chose ‘Personal Experience of the Holy’, students warned me that its professor – one Joseph Lutzy – was not like 90% of the Dawson elite educational task force. He was not ‘easy’. But I didn’t like to listen to the opinions of others. Why not see it for myself?
The subject: perfect, new-age mumbo jumbo, which I should be able to bluff my way through without reading a page. The students: philosophy types, kids who disbelieved their own existence and who chattered on for hours about it. An easy grade, I was convinced. But as soon as the professor walked in and stood, facing the class, I discovered my assessment was a ‘John McLaughlin’—WRONG!
And speaking of ‘Father God‘…
There stood Joseph Lutzy. A Californian Expat, former Jesuit Brother, athlete and educator extraordinaire. He had a retired football player’s build, olive skin (via that same Calabria), sporting big, curly gray/silver/salt-n-pepper hair: the image of God? Maybe more Zeus-like than Biblical, with a powerful Greco-Roman voice out of old movies where B.C. collided with A.D. I was enthralled and intimidated. Was this dude for real? And was I going to fail?
After a brief introduction, Professor Lutzy turned, faced the chalk board and began writing. He was fast. And the words were big.
Words I couldn’t pronounce: me-ta-physics, e-pis-te-mol-ogy, a-esthetics, along with a few words that I had heard of before, such as ethics and politics, words I would discover, shortly, I knew next to nothing about. And that would change.
It’s hard to describe. And in fact, I wish there was a video of Joe doing what came next. I was sitting as though inside my favorite movie or book, totally absorbed. But he was diagramming and explaining ‘The Great Ideas’ beginning with the complex and breaking them down into the not-so-complex, until I saw how essential these ideas were to my life—and to my story. And yours as well.
His curly Zeusy-grey hair moved against the blackboard (with a minor bald-spot in the middle). His diagrams were like lightning. His hands displayed a steady stream of connections that, in my mind, were to rapidly solidify into concepts that made sense by way of that allusive yet logical Mr. Spock-ish method. A is A. The Lutzy law of non-contradiction (borrowed from Ari of Macedonia).
His performance that day convinced me of one, indisputable fact: that my own application or misapplication of Joe’s ‘Great Ideas’ would lead to pain or pleasure, and, thus, had real world consequences, back here on planet earth. Bottom line: I finally knew what I didn’t know. Which was pretty much everything.
Most teachers at Dawson rarely defined their terms. In fact, most professors believe that terms do not have any actual definitions (or identity), particularly the ones they have dedicated their lives to studying and teaching. A gift from Adorno and Marcuse, no doubt. (pun intended)
But Joseph Lutzy always defined his terms. And made us do the same. Repeatedly. He was also keen on giving us the etymology of those terms informed by his study of Greek, Latin and Hebrew.
Several year later, I remember the horrified look on the face of a McGill University ‘professor of aesthetics’ when I defined ‘ART’ for him. The same definition I learned in Lutzy’s ‘Personal Experience of the Holy’. But there was more. Joseph Lutzy had a viewpoint. You didn’t know it from day one – although perhaps I Spider-Sensed it – but he BELIEVED in the power of Ideas. IDEAS worked—if they were true. The world was a comprehensible reality. And words were our tool of comprehension. And understanding was sort of…holy?
‘LOGIC: the non-contradictory identification of Reality.’
‘AESTHETICS: concrete representations of one’s metaphysical value judgements.’
‘TRUTH: The conformity of mind with Reality.’
In the Lutzy approach, words have meanings. And those meanings were key to understanding ourselves and our relationship to the world around us. Ideas were tools. And with these tools, I could begin chipping away at some of the confusions that had encrusted my fragile little mind since birth. And I could also begin to back-up my assumed arrogance with some actual substance. (maybe)
Joseph Lutzy taught – with proof – that happiness was the moral purpose of one’s life. Not mindless indulgence or narcissism; not an instant pleasure, and not the pandering, phony euphoria brought on by the ‘fitting in’ that I witnessed amongst my friends, family and community at large. Rather, Lutzy argued for Aristotle’s conception of eudaemonia—the biggest word of them all. This was Lutzy’s ultimate contribution to my life. His position that one should aim for the virtues, that made the values, that made actual happiness possible.
He taught us that eudaemonia was not a smirk or a temporary feeling. Rather, it was a total state of happiness. Life consists of failures and success – but if you were ‘your own hero’ – you could earn the emotional state of inner peace and refined pleasure—becoming a diamond instead of coal. Living the good, no…the GREAT life. An achievement that was both possible and necessary.
I can recall our first assignment.
Joe had us write about an important relationship in our life. Concerned, I handed in a paper that I believed was too juvenile and simplistic. But when the paper was returned, Joseph had marked it up red, with comments. He exposed profound insights between each line. He made the commonplace very uncommon. He took friendship—and valuing—seriously. The paper was about my life. And there was actual beauty within it, not by chance, but by choice. What appeared ordinary or normal to me was interpreted quite differently by way of the Lutzy methodology. Looking-up from his comments, I felt him kicking any temporary cynicism, borrowed from adults, out of the conversation. Out of the stadium. Out of me.
Like Socrates, Lutzy questioned what we already knew—but he asked for more. Unlike Socrates, Lutzy’s probing lead to introspection and the push for more life-experience, instead of a cave. ‘The way’ was an organized, systematic, understandable and applicable-to-life philosophy—one that gradually became a lens with which I would view the world. My very own philosophy.
I walked out of ‘Personal Experience of the Holy’ not a ‘changed man’ but a man to begin with. And I had more than a sack of big words with which to impress the ladies and annoy my family (which I happily did!). I had a box of real tools. And now that I was hooked, I enrolled in every Lutzy class, and my self-development continued.
From Elie Wiesel, to Kurasawa to Mortimer Adler to Ingmar Bergman to Ayn Rand (the evil one!), Joseph Lutzy presented the world of literature, philosophy, film, music, art and everything else under the sun, right before my eyes. And through his teaching, I realized my job was to open my eyes. (abre los ojos).
In class, Lutzy made a habit of reading aloud movie summaries before screening them, which drove me nuts. I used to block my ears and make a humming sound (which I think he heard). He enjoyed rundowns. I preferred to be surprised.
Kurosawa’s Ikiru was one film he showed us in his course, ‘God, Man and Film’. Ikiru was a serious wakeup call and an inspiration. As was ‘Return of the Jedi’ – no joke. A Jedi through the eyes of a Lutzy was something to behold. My hands were on my desk and my eyes were wide-open. Here was thought and action combined.
In his course, ‘Philosophy of Sexuality’, Joe argued that admiration, whether of a work of art or of some other man-made object, was proper so long as it reflected ‘the good’ (by an objective standard, of course). But basing your estimate merely on the opinions of others was neither admiration nor even judgment. It was the absence of judgment, a void.
And speaking of Aesthetics, my motorcycle jackets (and ‘style’), he observed, represented ‘the open road, freedom, individualism’. Although as a symbol, the jacket was only a promise—and it required more than the act of forking over 600 dollars (which I earned) in order to impress my friends. After all, those kind of people to be impressed with a jacket were probably not really your friends. Not that that had been my motivation. I wanted to attract Franca DeSanto. A much nobler goal than social climbing. Nevertheless, Lutzy pulled this example out from my own life. He argued that every like or dislike expressed a value. So, yes, I felt better about the 600 bucks. It could have been a waste. It didn’t have to be, though. The man of the open road was available, but at a much higher price. It meant actually becoming one. Mirrored by the best slogan emblazoned-billboard of my youth (merci LaCoste) —
‘BECOME WHAT YOU ARE’.
Joseph Lutzy has been one of the prime motivators of my life. He encouraged me to pursue my own dreams, and not to rely on others to set them for me. He demonstrated, with flawless logic, that life should revolve around virtues, values and their pursuit. This meant: goals to achieve through productive work. This meant accepting that the pursuit of what you love is the only realistic life-choice, that is, if you want to get and ‘be’ real—and are willing to work for it.
Life has not always been easy (nor should it be). But I have had more adventures, experienced more loves, losses and successes than I ever dreamed possible. Maybe that’s because Lutzy’s vision of life is so much richer than anything I previously imagined or—outside of his classroom and in the world at large—anyone has imagined.
After graduation, a friendship developed. And lasted until 2015, when Joe passed away at 85.
There isn’t any aspect of my life that he hasn’t affected. My career choices, my romantic endeavors, my creative sensibility — all of it is subordinate to that philosophy that Mr. Lutzy drew up on the board, DAY 1. He freed me by way of ideas, ones that became my own. Truly, an education for Liberty.
I cherish those weekend outings to Montreal’s Little Italy where Joe and I shared and encouraged my admiration of Italian culture and food (and women!) which was his (and my) gateway to the Great Ideas of the Greeks, Romans, Renaissance and Enlightenment, which further changed the course of my life.
On my 21st Birthday at Casa Napoli (one of our hang-outs), Joe gave me a ‘Pavarotti and Friends’ CD wrapped in a newspaper that said, ‘To Sean, who has all it takes to be his own hero’. I’m now in my forties. His comment remains the nicest thing that anyone has ever said to me. And at that point in my life, I needed that ‘kick’ in the right direction, more than words can describe.
And I could easily expand this personal essay and write a book about the man. But instead, the stories I tell, the characters I draw, the worlds I build, the life I live and the battles I’ve fought—and fight—are my living tribute to him and the tools he gifted to me—an offer he made, requesting only that I open my eyes in order to examine and pick-up the tools for myself.
Have I made it? Let’s say, I’m on my way, living life, aiming still to become what this incredible man, with his incredible mind, actually was: his own hero, and mine.
Thanks for everything Joe.