Warning: This interview contains several offensive swear words, which I decided not to omit, to better reflect the conversational style.
For a small man, Samuel Backman makes his presence known. He is extremely fit and immediately likeable. He never seems to relax, jumping from one activity to another, or discussing one topic or another, without ever showing signs of slowing down. He has a remarkably quick wit, an impressive knowledge of how the world works, and a warm heart – all three of which create a fine conversationalist. We meet over some beers (he easily outpaces me) for his interview on a Sunday night, when he has time in his busy life as a medical student. His language is colourful.
Sam grew up in Middleton, Ohio, right between Dayton and Cincinatti. I ask him what his mother does for a living.
“Joanie works for the auto industry, works in Dayton teaching classes. She teaches line workers, it’s like history and business and economics so that when certain things are said, there’s a deeper understanding of corporate decision-making. So they talk about supply-side economics. You know, it’s not rocket-science, but it’s enough so that they understand corporate behaviour. It’s tough to describe without making it sound like it’s the, you know, corporate overlords educating the peons so that they walk more in line. It’s that your average line worker and your average GM employee are not particularly well educated, and so it’s to further that. A lot of them barely have high school education. It’s a neat program, and it’s not all proofread by management, or by the UAW, even though they both feed into it. So she can stand up and say ‘GM is a cunt-bag-piece-of-shit corporation’, and she would still walk away with her hour. Paid for by GM,” he chuckles.
“What about your dad, Bob?”
“He’s retired now. He worked his entire life for the federal government, he worked for the Medicaid administration. Overseeing Medicaid, he was a local, or mid-local manager, I don’t know.”
“Do you know what he did?”
“No, not at all, it was a thankless job and he hated it. It got better toward the end of his career, which is good, cause it left him happier with the years that he put in. It turns out that he moved offices from one of the suburban Cincinnati offices into the federal, downtown Cincinnati, which is funny because his boss was the father of a girl my older brother had nailed and not called again. Frankly it was awkward on more than one occasion.”
“So did he hate it because of the people he had to work with?”
“Yeah. And it’s a thankless job. Any government job is…like all the benefits are there, he had fairly decent healthcare for me, my brothers, and my mom and stuff, and he made a good salary. We weren’t living in diamonds and furs, but we lived, you know? Paid off the mortgage, lived the American dream, had 2.3 kids, white picket fence and all that shit, um…because my little brother’s only a third of a person. Total cunt. Fair bit of job security, you know, any government gig. But with this attitude that has swept the nation, this whole conservative attitude that any government job, any government anything, is wasteful and obstinate and stupid, and you know, the lowest bidder. That kind of wears on you after years and years. You want to go to work and do your job and do your job well, there’s no, you know, my father had a lot of pride in the work that he did. And to hear people consistently shit on government employees as stupid and lazy and criminal, almost the way they talk about them, you know, they extort the government for these exorbitant salaries, and benefits that nobody else gets, and well, you know, fuck you: he’s a hard worker, worked thirty, thirty-five years for Medicaid. The government does some things excellent, and I will never at all argue with that. There’s certain things they do incredibly well. There’s some things they don’t do well. But to extrapolate so that every government worker, all of their agencies are dumb and lazy and stupid, is a lie, it’s criminal, and it shits on all the people who are just hard working individuals, who go to work for the government because they believe in civic duty. And that was my father, I think it really got to him.”
I ask him what the dinner table is like for his family.
“Frankly, we were raised with a heavy handed sense of politics. The way I always joke about it is that we were raised with politics over religion. We were raised religious to understand religion, not to be religious, so that there are options for us. But politics was really the bread and butter of our upbringing, because my mother takes politics very seriously. There’s always been a steady stream of political thought and discourse in our family, and so that’s helped shape a lot of our…anything. You know any time we’re together, it’s ‘What’s new, what’s happening?’ Beyond that there’s a lot of humour in the family, which is frankly pretty off-colour. So a good portion of the actual family dinners we have are spent trying to be: who can be the most offensive, without tripping so far over the line that everybody needs to stop. It took me a while to recognize that humour is very very far from racism, and you should always be able to tell, unless you’re wrong.”
I ask him if he has a memory of his father that sticks out to him.
“I think one of the better parts… I was living in Atlanta – I moved to Atlanta after university. I lived there for a couple of years, before coming here [to Winnipeg, Canada for medical school]. When I was there I was high-functioning, but really not maximizing anything that I was close to, you know? I had two jobs, both of which I enjoyed, and that I was good at, and that my bosses knew I was good at, and were happy with me, and everything was going well. They were adult jobs, they weren’t fucking waiting tables or folding shirts at Abercrombie or something ridiculous like that. But my folks knew that I wasn’t…that it was a transition period, that I hadn’t found what I was looking for, that this wasn’t the next thirty plus years of me. And they knew it even though I didn’t know that they knew it, because they knew it fucking eons before I ever picked up on it. I thought I was fine there, you know, ‘Oh I got a car, and I can pay for my own house, and fuck this is awesome I have disposable income, and I can go get banged up a couple nights a week, and have my own dog, this is fucking sweet!’ I was wrong, completely wrong, I was fucking miserable, I hated my life there. I didn’t know that, because I paid for a car and I felt like an adult and I felt all great and stuff like that.”
“And you were young.”
“And stupid, fucking stupid. When I called my folks, and told them how I did on the MCATs, and I told them, because I’d taken the MCATs kind of on a whim. Not that I didn’t take them seriously, I had taken them very seriously, and I studied and I worked my ass off and I busted my balls so I could do as good as I could. But I took them just to see, basically. I didn’t really know, I mean I was working for a hospital, so I had an interest in medicine, but I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. But I figured this was test zero, that I would write the test and I would see how I matched up against fucking, the rest of the country who had similar aspirations. And I did fairly well. And when I did as well as I did, meaning that I have a future in medicine, it’s not like ‘Fuck you, you’re completely excluded, stay the fuck out of here, you’ll never work here, muahahaha.’ No, I did well enough that it was very much a possibility. So I called and told my folks that. My old man is not really much of a gushing type, very stoic, and very you know, like worked thirty years at a job he hated just to support a family and put food on the table for a bunch of shitty kids who didn’t appreciate him. You know, none of us are dead that I know of. He was effusive in his excitement for me, and I think a big part of it was because he knew me well enough to know that I would really be happy here. In a way that, even though what I was doing in Atlanta was related to science and related to medicine, wasn’t what I was looking for. It wasn’t really his effusiveness, it was the fact the he knew, even though I didn’t, and if he told me I would have told him to fuck off and gone in the other direction, and been a fucking circus performer or something. He knew what I would be good at, and what I would be happy at, before me. And better than me. That one took me awhile to understand, you know I just kind of woke up one day and was like: Fucker! You know? God, I guess he knew me for like twenty plus years before I got my head out of my ass. It was because he knew me, just miles better than I had any idea of what I was interested in for myself. That one really knocked me on my ass.”
And his mother?
“Mom’s kind of the peacekeeper. She not one of those effete little, blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers. She’s a peacekeeper by having bigger guns than everybody else. So if you sit at a table with a bunch of wound-up, aggressive-ass people, you can either ask everybody politely to stand down, or you can be carrying the biggest stick. And everybody, consistently, no matter what it was, she would consistently prove herself to be bigger, tougher, stronger, and most importantly, smarter than you. In my family, and I imagine in smart families the world over, we’re all pretty ugly. So we’re not going to win anything by bringing home a modeling contract, especially when you’re all in high school and ugly as balls anyways. Our intelligence is very highly valued. What you brought to the table intellectually was important. Because fuck you otherwise. Don’t waste my time with talk. If you were going to sit around the table and discuss with the adults, you had to be an adult. You had to understand current events, or you had to ask about current events so that you could be taught, you couldn’t just come to the table with ignorant, stupid suppositions, and present them. So in our family, where strength isn’t the most highly sought after weapon, where intelligence is the currency, she’s hands down the richest. That helped keep people in line. That’s where she kept a lot of traction and helped keep people together. She almost went out of her way to make sure that she was up on everything that was going on, not just current events, but your math homework, and your science. There was a very important period, growing up, where it was quite clear that she was ahead of the ball on everything, and you’re an idiot. That was a very important part of growing up, was having her around as, again a peacekeeper, but not a punk-ass UN peacekeeper.”
We wrap up, and I realize that we’ve had far more beers than I’d meant to.