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My relationship with Toby Keith

Toby Keith and Tracey O'Connell getting through tough times together

My heart broke hearing that Toby Keith died yesterday morning at age 62. Admittedly, I never met him in real life (except on PhotoShop) hadn’t thought about him in years. I didn’t know he’d been diagnosed two years ago with stomach cancer. I read that he wrote a #1 song every year for 20 straight years. He was a prolific singer-songwriter and musician, a rare combo, much like Taylor Swift. He couldn’t help but write songs, about life, and love, and the world as he saw it. Like most celebrities, he was controversial. Some say he drank too much. Some say he was an asshole. Who am I to judge? We all have vices. Most artists are tortured souls. Hell, most people are, too.

Initially, I wanted to do something silly as a tribute. Like maybe make a TikTok of me singing one of his songs. I know he’d approve because he loved being silly and outrageous and original. But as I played his songs again over the past 24 hours, my broken heart felt simultaneous lightness and longing, typical of nostalgia.

Toby Keith got me through some really tough times. Specifically, in 2002, I was 32-years-old with a 3-year-old and a newborn. Working my first job out of fellowship in a busy radiology private practice, I felt that shocking level of incompetence that comes when you think you know what you’re doing but you realize everything you know is wrong. I had a 30-minute commute from Durham to Raleigh, NC. It was just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The world as I knew it was unrecognizable. We were building a new house around the corner from our first house, which sold the day before going on the market and before the new house was ready, fortuitous but inconvenient. My stepdad graciously offered for my young family to move into his condo in North Raleigh, and he moved in with his then girlfriend (having trouble keeping up?). I still had a 30-minute commute to work, and was now detoured all over Research Triangle Park taking kids to and from daycare and checking on the construction project, the usual running myself ragged. But guess who kept me company? Yep.

Toby’s lyrics made me laugh out loud and cry. They tapped into my whole humanity. They reminded me that a life existed out of my little universe. “How Do You Like Me Now” was, and remains, one of the greatest kiss-my-ass songs in history. We all know that feeling of wanting to be seen by someone who won’t give us the time of day, doesn’t even know we exist, and yet we keep doing anything to get their attention. To get their approval. (The medical hierarchy will reward you for doing so- hence, the learned and reinforced pattern of behavior.) They make us feel like we don’t matter until, one day, we become acutely aware that actually, we were spared by not realizing our dreams with this person. We no longer need them, and we want them to know how sweet life is now, without them. Their loss! Ha!

Yeah, I was always the crazy one, broke into the stadium

And I wrote your number on the 50-yard line.

You were always the perfect one and a valedictorian

So, under your number I wrote “Call for a good time.”

I only wanted to get your attention,

But you overlooked me somehow.

Besides, you had too many boyfriends to mention,

And I played my guitar too loud.

How do you like me now?

When I took off to Tennessee,

I heard that you made fun of me,

Never imagined I’d make it this far.

Then you married into money, girl-

Ain’t it a cruel and funny world?

He took your dreams, and he tore them apart.

He never comes home, and you’re always alone,

And your kids hear you cryin’ down the hall.

Alarm clock starts ringin’ who could that be singin’

It’s me, baby, with your wake-up call.

How do you like me now?

Now that I’m on my way.

You still think I’m crazy standing here today?

I couldn’t make you love me but I always dreamed about living in your radio.

How do like me now?

At the time, it felt like an anthem I could sing to the division head in my private practice group who relentlessly made me feel “not enough”- while I relentlessly tried to please him. During the interview process, I’d felt confident and was certain we’d be great partners. But then I arrived at work 6 months pregnant and was experiencing typical “imposter syndrome,” which didn’t have a name at the time, the constellation of feelings that come in screaming when a well-educated, hyper-achieving person enters a new environment and doesn’t know how to succeed, so feels like a fraud. Rather than encouraging me or sharing stories of his own transition, this guy sensed my fear and capitalized on it. As the only orthopedic radiologist in the group before I joined, he’d already befriended all the regional orthopedic referrers and established their trust and rapport. The practice didn’t announce to the medical community that a new radiologist had joined the group. About a month after onboarding, this partner had a private party at a ritzy steakhouse in town where he invited all of his orthopedic cronies for a five-course meal, and didn’t invite me. I found out about it later from another person in the group. The MRI imaging protocols hadn’t been updated for about 5 years so the strategies I’d learned in fellowship didn’t apply, meaning I could never be sure, say, if linear signal in a knee meniscus was real or artifact, requiring me to ask him questions and look stupid, seeing him aghast that I didn’t seem to have basic interpretation skills. For YEARS, I continued to see orders from referrers for exams that said, “Dr. _____ to read”- leaving me in the awkward position of having to ask him if he wanted to read the MRI or if I should. He’d go on vacation for a week, leaving me with no one to ask for a second opinion, then be visibly annoyed by the cases I wanted to run by him when he returned, making sure he agreed with me. The power was in his hands, especially once I returned from maternity leave and had to excuse myself periodically to use the breast pump between procedures. He didn’t communicate with me except in either passive-aggressive ways, or overtly aggressive ways, screaming at me in front of colleagues when I couldn’t gain access to an athlete’s shoulder joint for a steroid injection. The other members of the group never confronted him, just tacitly accepted, This is the way he is. He reads a lot of cases and musculoskeletal MRI makes a lot of money for the group. Let it go. What I couldn’t see then, that I couldn’t see for a long time, is that he felt threatened by me on some level. He didn’t want me to “ruin his reputation.” He wanted me to decompress his workload, but he didn’t want me to succeed. For 16 years, he, or one of the other 6 male MSK colleagues hired over time and groomed by him to “other” me, subverted me. It’s my fault for tolerating it.

But guess what? I left that group 6.5 years ago, just as the practice was about to enter a massive, uprooting transition. He and his chums are still there slogging away, understaffed, working like dogs, suffering in this post-COVID time of The Great Resignation while I’m thriving as the person I always was, a competent radiologist that simply didn’t belong with them, which makes it so dang fun to belt out, “How do you like me now?”

So many more songs, so many stories.

As a physician, a coach, a mom of three young adults, I sometimes suffer from not being able to get my own emotional needs met. Before I embraced writing, I used to process things out loud, with other people. As someone who values connection, I see my connection to others as belonging. But sometimes, it feels like no one understands, like I don’t have a voice regardless. “I Wanna Talk About Me” helped me so much back in 2002 and it still makes me LOL every. damn. time.

We talk about your work, how your boss is a jerk.

We talk about your church, and your head when it hurts.

We talk about the troubles you been having with your brother,

About your daddy and your mother and your crazy ex-lover.

We talk about your friends, and the places that you’ve been.

We talk about your skin and the devils on your chin,

The polish on your toes and the run in your hose

And god knows we’re gonna talk about your clothes.

You know talking about you makes me smile,

But every once in a while . . .

I wanna talk about me, wanna talk about I,

Wanna talk about number one, oh my, me my-

What I think, what I like, what I know, what I want, what I see.

I like talking about you, you, you, you usually-

But occasionally, I wanna talk about me (me, me, me, me)

We talk about your dreams, and we talk about your schemes,

Your high school team and your moisturizer cream.

We talk about your nana up in Muncie, Indiana.

We talk about your grandma down in Alabama.

We talk about your guys of every shape and size,

The ones that you despise and the ones you idolize.

We talk about your heart, ‘bout your brain and your smarts

And your medical charts and when you start.

You know talking about you makes me grin,

But every now and then . . .

I wanna talk about me, wanna talk about I

Wanna talk about number one, oh my, me my

What I think, what I like, what I know, what I want, what I see.

I like talking about you, you, you, you usually

But occasionally, I wanna talk about me (me, me, me, me)

You, you, you, you, you, you, you, you, you, you, you, you, you

I wanna talk about me

The best thing about expressive writing coming into my life is that now, I can talk about me. I can talk to myself about me, and it makes me feel better. Through expressive writing, I’ve become my own best friend. As someone who values connection, I consider authenticity as my connection to myself, a relationship that takes time and energy and commitment to maintain. And one that rewards me in spades.

Now post-menopausal, “As Good as I Once Was” has taken on new interpretations. There are things I’m not as good at as I used to be, but in many, many ways, I’m better than ever. This reckoning with aging has been ameliorated with humor, and Toby knows how to bring it.

I ain’t as good as I once was.

My how the years have flown.

But there was a time, back in my prime

When I could really hold my own.

If you want to fight tonight

Guess them boys don’t look all that tough.

I ain’t as good as I once was, but I’m as good once

As I ever was.

I used to be hell on wheels

Back when I was a younger man.

Now my body says “You can’t do this boy”

But my pride says “Oh yes, you can.”

I ain’t as good as I once was

That’s just the cold hard truth.

I still throw a few back, talk a little smack

When I’m feelin’ bullet proof.

So don’t double-dog dare me now

’Cause I’d have to call your bluff.

I ain’t as good as I once was, but I’m as good once

As I ever was

May not be good as I once was, but I’m as good once

As I ever was.

I consider myself a liberal in every sense of the word. During the London promotional show of their tour on March 10, 2003, Natalie Maines of The (Dixie) Chicks said: “We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas” referring to then President George W. Bush and VP Dick Cheney’s decision to declare war on Iraq. I agreed with her. I didn’t, and still don’t, see the war as appropriate or justified. The controversy that erupted afterwards was abominable. (Looking back through the lens of the Trump era, can you even? If someone said that now, it would hardly be newsworthy given the public vitriol now tolerated by all in politics and among the electorate.) Toby Keith and The Chicks got into verbal sparring because Toby felt Natalie’s words were disrespectful; it was against his values to speak negatively about the President of the United States, leader of the free world. (Remember when it was disrespectful to speak negatively of someone in office?) 

As a huge fan of Toby and The Chicks, I stayed loyal to both. To this day, I prefer to stay out of politics, choosing instead to see people as generously as I can, staying open to why they believe what they believe, the context, their history, trying to stay curious rather than judgmental, while also setting boundaries to maintain my own integrity rooted in the beliefs that every human being matters and that I must do what I can to help those who cannot help themselves. I agreed with Natalie, and yet, I could see that Toby’s response was a reflection of his values. Both were acting from their integrity.

I know Toby Keith helped Taylor Swift get her start, and that he was also a partner in the label that screwed her over. I’m not going to pretend to know the ins and outs of that shit show, but I know Taylor stayed in her own integrity and wrote her own ending to that horrible chapter of disillusionment and loss of trust in the people she’d trusted the most. As a Swiftie, I am proud of how Taylor shows up in her life with her own values. The rhetoric around why she hasn’t responded to Toby’s death is none of our business. People grieve in their own ways, on their own timelines, and it sounds like their relationship was complicated. Also, power and fame screw people up.

In a time when character seems to be a trait that’s no longer “trending,” I’m grateful for those with integrity, who say what they mean, mean what they say, and act in accordance with their values. In my limited assessment of what I know about Toby Keith and how his lyrics made me feel, he was a man who embodied his values of love of family, God, and country. He was unflinching in his values. He lived with conviction. He didn’t tiptoe through life. He didn’t care who was President. He cared about America. I read in Newsweek today that he performed at events for presidents GW Bush and Obama and Trump, with over 200 shows in Iraq and Afghanistan for the USO. He was a registered Democrat until 2008, saying,”I was a Democrat my whole life. They kind of disowned me when I started supporting the troops, then I went and registered independent . . . I’ve never been a registered Republican. It just keeps people off balance. They don’t know what to think.” He “voted for Clinton twice and twice for GW Bush” but “didn’t care for Gore or Kerry.” It’s not known whether he voted for Obama or McCain in 2008 but, when asked in 2009 if he approved of Obama, he said, “I think he’s doing fine.” In 2016, he said, “I can’t believe there’s 300 million Americans in this country and we’ve got these two as our final two. It’s absolutely crazy.”

A family member told me, “I get it. I’d rather remember him for his wonderful music and talent and skip the rest.” My response, “Of course it’s about his music. AND music, especially Country music, has been very politicized. Like when, people told The Chicks, ‘shut up and sing’ as if entertainers are just show ponies.” I write about Toby Keith’s political views here because it was a big deal back then for performers to stand up for their own personal beliefs rather than sell out to the music industry. It made an impact on me, personally, as I struggled with my own lived experience in my career, standing up for my personal values in a medical industry that didn’t care about me at all, only how much revenue I could generate. People are multidimensional and complex. It’s encouraging to see a new generation of musicians crossing genres and not aligning with political belief systems, but rather, personal ones. Like seeing Luke Combs at the Grammy awards covering a song with a black lesbian woman, keeping the lyrics exactly the same so Tracy Chapman would receive full writing credits for royalties, sharing the stage, melding worlds. This is how we change culture. Plus, culture always changes before politics does.

A good ol’ boy from Oklahoma who worked in an oil field and a bar after graduating high school, Toby paid attention. He stayed married to the same woman for 40 years, adopted her child as his own, and together they had two more kids. His songs demonstrate a passion, cleverness, wittiness, and thoughtfulness that’s unique. His lyrics are poetic, symbolic, and personal, written about what he felt, showing male vulnerability that many only tolerate in songs. He wrote about what he imagined others felt, putting himself in real and hypothetical situations, staying pensive and empathetic, with a fierce yet tender heart. People have said the same things about me which I receive as a compliment.

Toby- thank you for being a source of laughter, love, hope, generosity, character, and strength for me when I didn’t believe in myself. Thank you for being a musician for my mom and me to be able to go to your concert and have a wonderful time together without speaking. Thank you for being the soundtrack for my little boys when they were in the back of the mini-van on all those commutes; they still know your songs as a source of joy and safety. When things couldn’t be better, you made them beautiful. I’m so glad your music will always be alive and a source of comfort for me. May you be held and free.

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