Lyrics and Life

By Caitlin Ward

16 Tons

Some people say a man is made outta mud
A poor man’s made outta muscle and blood
Muscle and blood and skin and bones
A mind that’s a-weak and a back that’s strong

You load 16 tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ‘cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine
I loaded 16 tons of number nine coal
And the straw boss said “Well, a-bless my soul”


I was born one mornin,’ it was drizzlin’ rain
Fightin’ and trouble are my middle name
I was raised in the canebrake by an ol’ mama lion
Cain’t no-a high-toned woman make me walk the line


If you see me comin,’ better step aside
A lotta men didn’t, a lotta men died
One fist of iron, the other of steel
If the right one don’t a-get you
Then the left one will


Music and lyrics by Merle Travis. Performed by Tennessee Ernie Ford

I’ve been trying to instil a sense of work/life balance at my place of employment. There have been far too many times I’ve been working late only to realize that half the offices in my hallway are populated by others working just as late.

I’ve been trying to redress this work/life imbalance by stalking the halls around seven most evenings demanding that everyone go home. This tends not to work particularly well, as the call back is often, “what are you still doing here?”

I know. It’s an imperfect system.

I’m going to work on this system, though. This past week, I’ve been thinking a fair amount about work — probably because I haven’t been able to work very much these last few days. I was rear-ended on my bicycle by a drunk driver a couple of weeks ago. Despite being forced to walk with a cane, I got my bike fixed up and continued to cycle to work for the next week or so. I reasoned that since I got hit on Friday night, I had had the whole weekend to recover and was probably good to go on Monday morning. That first week after my accident happened to be one of the busiest weeks of my year, so I didn’t really have time to take off. I would use the cane, keep cycling, and probably be good to go by the next weekend as long as I got enough sleep. I am, after all, pretty much invincible, and this is not the first time I’ve been hit by a car. It’s the fourth.

Things didn’t work out quite as well as that, but I’m sure you already guessed. It turned out that the first doctor I went to wasn’t an incredibly thorough fellow, and had neglected to check my spine when I came in to see him. It was only this past week that I went to someone else, who gave me a dressing down for having not come in sooner. I have whiplash, and my vertebrae are all out of alignment. Now, I’m going to physical therapy every second day, and I have strict orders to go to work as little as possible.

Not being at work is giving me a bit of a panic. It’s only been three days, but I feel as if I’m stupidly behind on everything. And honestly, I am a bit behind. But I’m realizing there is this strange sort of hubris that professionals sometimes associate with work; it’s as if we think the world is going to collapse if we don’t work 60 hours a week.

When I talk about work/life balance, maybe the thing is not that we’re workaholics simply because we’re too dedicated. Maybe we’re also workaholics because we have an inflated sense of the significance of our own jobs. It’s not that my work isn’t important — it’s that it’s not so important that I need to give myself a permanent spinal injury in order to do it.

I’m particularly aware of how not urgent my job actually is right now because in Saskatoon, a very important service has been compromised. At the time of writing, the city is into the third week of a transit lockout, and the bus drivers I know are not optimistic about ongoing negotiations. The city is limping along without buses, but it’s hit a lot of people very hard. I have friends who have been almost completely immobilized by the lack of public transit. I have other friends working in community-based organizations whose volunteer force has been cut in half because their volunteers can’t travel. My good friend’s wife is a bus driver who has been on the picket line and off her bus route, without even strike pay to hold their family over through this time. And I know even when she’s at work, driving buses can be a pretty thankless job. Their equipment is old and often broken, they don’t get bathroom breaks on some routes, and they are definitely not paid enough for the amount of abuse they get.

But I also know that however difficult the bus drivers’ circumstances are, their working conditions are still better than the working conditions of some people in this world, and certainly a lot better than what they might have been in the times before unions.

So here: instead of feeling angry at the drunk driver who hit me, or panicked about the amount of work I’m supposed to be getting done, I’m instead going to be grateful to have an understanding boss who is letting me take the time to heal, insurance that covers my medical needs, and a job that can be left for a few days without the world collapsing.

And when I’m better, I’m going to stalk the halls demanding people go home for the night. But it’ll be at five instead of seven.

Ward is a freelance writer and aspiring documentary filmmaker based in Saskatoon. You can find her short bursts of insight and frustration at

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