My Friend John

He’s not your average twenty five year old dude.  He’s not out trying to meet the girl of his dreams.  He’s not trying to advance his career.  He’s something more.  He’s the most unique individual I’ve ever met.

About a year and a half ago my life changed.  I gave up the big city of Chicago for the next challenge in my life.  I made the choice to try something new for myself.  I decided to enter a world I knew little about, one that came around to me from an experience several years prior.  For many it’s a world that can be intimidating and most often it is simply misunderstood.  That’s because it is made of individuals who each have a different layer of uniqueness.  This world is extraordinary.

The first day I enter the building for this new endeavor I receive an introduction to this young man sitting at the front desk.  He stands up and shakes my hand.  He is 6 foot 7.  I’m 6 foot 3 for comparison, so he stands above me.  Very quickly he returned to his task at hand that he was working on before my arrival.  Only when he was prompted by my other new coworkers did he continue conversation.  I think in my head that right than I knew I wanted to get to know this guy more.  He was unintentionally hiding something from me, an amazing mind that I knew nothing about.  I was curious to dig deeper.  Holy moly, I had no idea what was to come.

With each passing day as we exchanged a good morning “hi” my coworkers encouraged me to ask him about certain things.  More and more I started to learn about his interests and obsessions.  I’d learn that he is a swimmer and was a few months away from competing at the world’s biggest competition.  I’d also learn about his affinity for movies, most notably those that won an Oscar or received good ratings from the critics.  Right when I thought I was hard to match when it came to movies he blows me out of the water.  Name a year, any year, and he’ll tell you who won the Oscar for Best Picture. I’d come to find out he is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to history.  I had never seen someone scan Wikipedia like him.  It was incredible.  Following the bread crumb trail on his browser will leave you amazed.   That was just the start. 20151021_140942000_ios

If Back to the Future, Star Wars, or The Simpsons were brought up he was ready to talk a mile a minute.  Those are like the holy grail for him.  If you think you know a movie or have seen your favorite one a thousand times, well, he has seen each of these a million times.  The best part of his affinity for these movies is no matter your conversation you are prying him with the chances of the conversation somehow tying back into one of those three are simply bound to happen.  From there it will lead you to the thing that makes him, his ideas.

“My idea.”  When I first found out about one of his ideas I thought, “Wow good for you.  you have a creative mind.”  Little did I know that was just the beginning.  A day doesn’t pass without a “My idea is….yep that’s my idea.”  Often times the idea leads to a “Reality check.”  A reality check is a crossover idea that is a brilliant, yet peculiar, intertwining of two subjects that plays in his mind.  It could be Homer Simpson meeting Biff Tannon from Back to the Future.  It could be Donald Trump fighting Biff Tannon as ‘bullionaires’.  The latest, the Pied Piper getting rid of the zombies in Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’.

I’d never encountered someone who’s mind worked in such an intriguing way.  From the attention detail to the obsessions is marvelous.  The beginning of my curiosity to learn more and more about him had begun and is still fueled each and every day with his latest internet perusing discoveries.   20160119_153113000_ios

It didn’t stop there.  Just when I was fascinated by his mind I’d come to learn about his athletic prowess.  Ever since he was three years old he was a magnet for water.  His parents knew they better get him in swimming lessons.  Twenty one years later he was a fish in the water and competing at the world’s largest sporting event.  I’d come to know his parents and learn about his history of being involved with swimming.  The progress he has made to become the swimmer he is in itself inspiring.  The water is where he receives his structure and discipline but it is also where he is most relaxed.

Everyday his schedule is built on order and organization.  Routine is what he thrives on.  That is exactly what his coach has given him from day 1 in the pool.  He knows what to expect and it continues to take him to new heights.  How many of us can say we have mastered one of the four swimming disciplines?  He has mastered all four and often times combined them into one race, swimming’s most grueling, the individual medley.  To be able to conquer that event takes lots of precision, ability to learn different techniques and most importantly, many hours in the pool.  The plus for him, he loves the water.  It’s his release.  It’s his freedom.  It’s his sanctuary.

In a few months after meeting him and learning about how great of a swimmer he is, I

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The award I received from him for being his fan at World Games

chose to make a trip to Los Angeles, California to see my family at the same time as the 2015 World Games.  There were three athletes representing South Dakota.  He was one of them.  By this time a bond had been formed.  Other than my boss there is no one in the office that he connected with the same.  Some of that can be attributed to us all being on the sports team.  His family recognized my friendship with him and let me join them to see him participate.  What I would witness was one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever been a part of.  I’d see him compete against others from around the world and to excel.  I was there firsthand to see him get that gold medal placed around his neck as the only thing that mattered to him was waving at his family and I in the crowd.

Upon seeing him win that gold medal in the 100 meter backstroke I could tell that deep inside him he knew he was good.  He’ll never say how competitive he is or show it but you can see his desire to do great in the pool.  He has that switch during competition to give his best.  It may even seem he is competing against himself.  Then the event will be over and he won’t be disappointed if he doesn’t win.  This is one my favorite qualities about him, something I need to learn how to be better at.  His haul would continue with two more silvers at the Games.   20150727_010900350_ios

He thrived at the Games despite coming down with a strong cold.  He was a trooper.  Usually when something doesn’t go the way he was programmed to expect it throws him off, but in this case, he still had what always holds him together, the order, the timeline, the structure, and well, I guess having his mom available helped too.

However, one of the most admirable things I’ve noticed with him from the day I met him is his ability to adapt.  Although the adaptability may seem small in comparison to many others standards, his is worth a lot of merit.  When plans change it used to bother him a lot more and he would seek his mom or superiors.  Now he can take it in without a huge reaction overreaction for the most part, unless you mention his birthday has been moved.

Once my coworker and I told him his birthday had been moved.  He was not having that at all.  His birthday is the biggest day of his year, even bigger than the release of a new Star Wars movie.  We often have fun joking and seeking a fun reaction from him.  Most often he has no idea what we are talking about or we simply get a reference to one of his favorites as a reaction.  Sometimes we get the, “Are you playing a hoax on me?”  That often follows with a Simpsons or Back to the Future reference as well to rid the jokesters.  It’s all in the best fun but still have to know our boundaries because we love him as another compadre.  He is much quicker to call us out now and that is a tribute to his growth socially.

20150612_153201776_iosSome of my favorite in-office shenanigans with him over the last year and a half has to be playing a raptor call and then me running around the office as a raptor.  He also loves Jurassic Park.  Him and I took the afternoon off to attend the premiere of Jurassic World when it came out.  Witnessing the anticipation and excitement from him for that was inspiring.  img_0368-2Another great one was the time I put on a polar bear mascot costume and ran outside the window so he could see me.  The instant smile on his face had him curious.  He did end up taking the mask off to find me but was it didn’t ruin his joy.  Then there was the time I got him 20151026_142652000_iostoy light sabers for his birthday and surprised him in the dark and then had a light saber battle with him.  He was instantly engaged in a duel of fates.  There are so many great moments with him in the office and they come every single day.

One of the best moments with him has to be the time my coworker was doing a daily obnoxious late-afternoon jam session in her cubicle.  She went up to his desk and saw him on Wikipedia.  The topic that was up was ‘tone deafness’.  He states to her, “Tone deafness huh?”.  She instantly thought I put him up to it but I didn’t.  I could not stop laughing when I heard.  It was perfect.  I was in amazement of him.  He surprises us every day.  His responses are priceless and unpredictable.  Try asking him anything about dating and you’ll get, “I’m just trying to be single.”  How can you not smile and chuckle to that response?

His mind still fascinates me.  I often hear him at his desk citing dialogue going on his mind from some show or movie and have to ask what he is referring to.  Once again, intriguing as always.  It could also be from his “subject of the month” that catches his interest.  He’ll read, study, and watch whatever he can on the topic.  In this case, be prepared for some ongoing education.  His most recent is most dangerous cities in America.  For someone like myself who is always on the go and traveling this knowledge is quite fitting.

More recently both of our lifelong passion for the Olympics came to the forefront.  He has followed the Olympics since his childhood just like me.  He even got to go see his swimming idol Michael Phelps compete at the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials in Omaha this summer.  When I arrived back from this year’s Games he was filled with questions for me.  Ever since World Games last year the Olympics have been a frequent topic.  A great bonding point.  I noticed something during the Olympics that he updated daily.  He made a list everyday of all the countries and their medal count.  Then after the final day of competition he surprised me with a final medal standings count for every country awaiting me on my desk.  I didn’t ask for it.  As hard as it is to see sometimes it was evident there was a mutual respect.  I was impressed.  I still have it hanging in my office.

I’ve learned so much about him through all of our experiences.  Whether it be the unique ways to coach him during our bowling outings so he can enjoy the game without frustration to his ability to sing while on road trips and Goofy Movie, Prince, Michael Jackson, or, his favorite, Huey Lewis and the News songs come on.  These findings have many times sparked him to be my guinea pig for my digital media endeavors.  He is now the unofficial organization model. Most recently I asked him to sing the National Anthem at our first state bocce event.  He vocalized that baby with flying colors while surprising the rest of the staff.

20160916_214454633_iosThis brings me to my  favorite experience with him.  A few weeks ago at the State Bocce Tournament I competed in unified bocce with him.  In the midst of a chaotic day dealing with scheduling and staffing as the lead on the event we somehow were able to join as teammates for our first event together.  We had some great moments, some tough losses and some great comebacks.  I remember my competitiveness coming out during the event.  This can be an asset at times and a quality that brings out my stubborn side.  In many tough spots during a match I’m thinking how can I win this point.  I forgot about the “we” in those moments.  I’d throw a bad ball and count us out but then he would go and throw an amazing ball when I had doubt.  I remember thinking in those moments that it wasn’t about the outcome.  It was about us playing together and giving our best but doing so as teammates and showing respect to our opponent.  We ended up losing to the same team twice to get eliminated and he would say without any disdain for them, “Them Belle Fourche are tough, huh?”

I’d reply, “They sure are aren’t they?”

He’d follow, “Yes.  Mmmhmm.”  It all became simple right then and there.  We played.  We had fun and how it is often so easy for him, we moved on.  20160916_214354813_iosWe went on to receive a bronze medal that day and I wish I had more of an opportunity to enjoy being on that medal stand with him but it was an achievement I didn’t expect.  It was an achievement not about the hardware on our necks.  We were unified.  It was his first unified award he had ever received and it was mine as well.  He’s literally won hundreds of medals in his career but that was the first unified one.  For me, I was reminded that after each game, or each little battle/competition in life, we must move on.  He does it without thought and admire that and try to keep learning from him in that regard.

There is also the amount of empathy that is uncovered even in the most challenging times for him.  At the same event, after being burnt out from the long days he was eager to get home but that didn’t stop him from getting out of the vehicle and bypassing the typical handshake and instead giving me a hug.  He may be dialed into his interests most of the time but his care for others is genuine.

Over the last year and a half my perspectives have been taken to a different level because of him, some indirectly and some directly.  The biggest is realizing that we are all different but have so much greatness in each of us and it just takes a little more to understand that sometimes because it comes in some of the most unique ways.  The understanding of differences, sharing kindness, and being loving and caring have grown for me in the short time.  For someone like myself who is very independent, to see and learn about how much his independence has grown over time is nothing short of inspiring and pushes me to keep growing.  This is probably where our bond starts.

20160108_015520489_iosBy now you may have picked up that he has something about him that sets him apart from your everyday encounter.  I didn’t address it right away because I wanted to let you know who he is as the person first and foremost.  He has a disability called autism.  He has difficulties when his routine breaks and get upset.  He may shake or pace.  If there is a spectrum I’m not sure where he would fall.  He is high functioning but still has trouble with many social interactions.  All of that is beside the point because, just like you and I, he tries to get better every day in all that he does.  His parents are amazing and set the bar higher and higher for him to grow.  He works to become a better co-worker, a better citizen, a better amigo, a better swimmer, and a better human being.   He drives to work every day.  He lives on his own.  He’ll go to restaurants and order on his own.  Having autism doesn’t define him.  In reality, it’s the special part of him that makes him original.

I’ve never witnessed a more pure joy than what I see from him daily.  It’s one of those joys where you see someone else experience it and it brings you joy just from seeing it.  It is often simple too.  It can come out of nowhere.  His joy reminds me to find my own joys and passions.  That is one of his greatest qualities that I cherish the most.  It’s constantly invigorating me.  I love to understand it more and more and bring it to my own life and maybe in turn, share it with others.  It’s extraordinary.

He has many aliases.  From J-Dub to Master Shredder (do to his elite paper shredding skills) to Mr. Heavy Lifter Guy, the “he” I have been referring to is an individual.

His name is John and he is my friend.

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