On Friday, I got the call that I’d always hoped I’d never get: news of the death of a close personal friend. I’ve been to funerals for grandparents who had lived full and vibrant lives, I’ve known of people, friends of friends, who have had their lives sadly cut short. But until Friday, I never knew what it meant for a close personal friend to have died. Until Friday, I’d been spared this. But Friday, the phone rang, and a mutual friend told me that our friend JP Sullivan, aka Sully, had taken his own life.
I remember the first time I met JP, in a little bar called Father’s Office, years before they were famous, far before they served their now legendary burger. It was almost Thursday on a Wednesday night, following our weekly group mountain bike ride in the Santa Monica mountains, starlit but for the lights on our handlebars. Our 20-odd bikes piled out front on the sidewalk, we clacked in on the hardened steel cleats of our shoes, a disaster of color, lycra, sweat, and camaraderie. JP and I were introduced over whatever beer I was drinking, and his predictable-as-the-eventual-sunrise pint of Arrogant Bastard. Naturally, we started talking about making beer. I was 24 at the time, and I had no idea how much I was going to learn from and with this guy.
In the years that followed, our mostly bike-threaded crew went on adventures to Utah and Colorado, hiked to the summit of Mt Whitney more than once, explored Yosemite, and our weekends and weeknights often rolled together multi-layered adventures that didn’t involve bikes: debates on the merits of classic movies, aggressive discussions on etymology, and urgent unplanned research efforts, sparked by off-hand questions such as “what is the best margarita?”, which then *immediately* required that we go purchase one of every mix, every type of tequila, every type of salt, every type of lime, every orange liquor, and painstakingly proceed to isolate and taste every variable in isolation — because how else can you know the taste of salt if not to taste it alone? We then combined them in careful proportions so we could answer the ‘ultimate margarita’ question conclusively, empirically, exhaustively. We did get to an answer that night, though we couldn’t remember what it was. I do recall that fresh squeezed lime juice was part of the answer.
Sully was meticulous. To say he was organized is a remarkable understatement. If it was something he cared about, it was cataloged, indexed, cross-referenced, saved, backed up, and encrypted — whether in the literal sense, or just in his approach to a concept such as understanding whiskeys of the world, or knowing everything about Formula1 car racing. It was never about being luxurious or ostentatious, rather it was about consistency, and a zen approach to chasing perfection. When he decided he wanted to do something, it became an obsession. Watch the top 100 movies of all time? Well sure, but which top-100 list? Well, all of them, of course. Duh. But this wasn’t your typical “alphabetize the spice rack” sort of meticulous. What I’m getting at here is a brain that was obsessed with being obsessed: if he wanted to know something, he wanted to know it from every dimension. What was great about it? What are the drawbacks? Who dislikes it and why? What if they’re right? He embodied curiosity, and he was committed to the truth, whatever form it might eventually take.
Sully and I both shared a love of words, and we each brought our own unique and vibrant passion to the topic. Our email threads were inspired, viscous, fervent. We both loved knowing where words came from, what they meant, and how to use them to full and sharpest effect. We’d stop each other mid-sentence with alarming frequency, both tripping up on a turn of phrase or particular word because we realized, often at the same moment, that we knew what it meant but we didn’t know *why* it meant it. We’d race each other to find the answer, and to this day, my google search skills owe much to our gameshow-style lightning rounds of “where did that word come from and why?”. One of his favorite phrases, tromp l’oeil, was that artistic moment where a 2D artwork achieves a 3D level of dimension, like those sidewalk paintings that turn a road into a dangerous chasm. Those moments where, through skill and artistry, something becomes larger than itself and takes on a delightful, magical, multidimensional presence. For all the analytical & computational left brained skill that he had, he was still a vicious creative. And he loved anything done well, anything that leapt off the page out into the world, and made itself known. Words, paintings, a good cup of tea — anything that became more than it was through the artistry of its creation to become far more than its parts.
JP and I for many years shared a remarkable friendship, one of those situations where our work lives, personal lives, recreational lives, and friends all overlapped so consistently and harmoniously that we felt like, and often described each other as, brothers from another mother. There were dozens of lunches at Bay Cities, hot pastrami with triple mustard and a coke. There was the time we went on a quest for the perfect steak, or the time we designed a checklist for his birthday, listing out and then visiting 20 bars he’d never been to in a single night. There were Hallowe’en costumed bike ride pub crawls to WeHo, debates over the optimal beer pairing for blue cheese in oil, and many moments when, after Father’s Office had become a complete madhouse, we’d walk in and the bartenders would nod, point, and hand us our pints, despite the A-List crowd being three deep at the bar. It was LA, so people just assumed we were famous.
Through all these moments, there were all these other sub-moments of Sullyisms, when he’d say something offhandedly, such as the time he said he was thinking about getting a samurai sword, and I’d perk up, realizing it was something actually important. He’d continue, saying that he went to LA’s japan town, but left empty handed because he couldn’t find “the samurai sword that defined him as a person”, that there were fine replicas for $50 but the ‘real ones’ were into the thousands. I asked him why we shouldn’t go back that moment and buy a real one because then he’d know he’d never have to get another one. To this, and to many other things I’d said to him over the years, he replied “I feel so understood.” I remember this phrase most of all right now.
I understood parts of JP, but not all of him. I don’t think anyone understood JP as well as he understood himself. He understood why people struggled with his candor and unvarnished approach to saying exactly what he thought. He never preached his opinion, but if you asked him a question, he could be trusted to answer honestly. But not everyone understood everything, including me. The parts of him I did understand were the parts I admired, learned from, and will continue to cherish into the future. The parts I understood were what inspired me to go to graduate school, to strive for knowledge in the face of uncertainty, and to be ever curious and exhaustively inquisitive.
On Friday, when I got that call, I was headed up to Mendocino for an 8hr mountain bike race. In shock as I hung up the phone, I didn’t know what to do, so I did what I’d set out to do: I went and raced my bike. I stopped on the way to grab a 22oz of Arrogant Bastard at a bottle shop off the freeway. Friday night, I drank it at sunset, pouring out his share over a fallen tree, crying more as the sun set further behind the landscape. The next day, as I spun out lap after lap on the racecourse, I dedicated little moments of the race to our friendship, little roots that I jumped off in his signature style, fast descents that I attacked recklessly, climbs with views across rolling green landscapes similar to so many we’d shared over the years, and a final lap that was all his. I even left some skin out on that course, as I’d done on so many other trails we’d ridden together.
A few days and many miles of dirt trail later, I’m simply sad. I’m sad he’s gone, I’m sad he struggled with depression in such a silent way, and I’m sad that despite his many friends, he couldn’t find a way through it. Once, I heard from someone who’d lost his daughter to suicide that he’d learned depression was comparable to going through life with a broken leg, all the time: excruciating pain at every waking moment. If that’s true, I can only start to imagine how hard it must really be, and as I continue to unpack all the feelings and memories, I wonder how long he’d persevered. Probably much longer than any of us know. He was many things, but he was not weak, and though depression defeated him, I know one thing for sure: it was not without a fight. I also know I’m going to miss him terribly. But I’m proud and honored to have been his friend.
If by some chance you’re reading this and struggling with depression, please reach out to someone. There are lots of options, anonymous or otherwise, including the National Suicide Prevention Helpline at 1–800–273-TALK and dozens of others. Call a friend, reach out to the last person who emailed you, text a family member — whatever it is, just Try. One. More. Thing.