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Don't Go Pro

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Alex Chambers:  When you're young you dream of getting so good at the thing you love that you'll be able to do it professionally. Maybe that dream sticks with you as a young adult, and you work really hard at the thing, for years. And then, one day, you wake up in a cold sweat, and you realize--

Diana Hong:  I can't play golf anymore.

Alex Chambers:  This week on Inner States, we have not one but two people who come really close to being professionals in very competitive fields and then hook left. One's packing boxes in a warehouse, and the other fell back on stand-up comedy because, you know, that's a safe bet.

Alex Chambers:  Our first story comes from producer, Avi Forrest.

Avi Forrest:  What's the easiest way to be a comedian? Is it practicing your jokes? Is it honing your impressions? Actually it's professional golf, or at least that's how comedian Diana Hong did it. The year was around 2000, and Diana is 12, her dad owns a video store.

Diana Hong:  It's like kind of like a Blockbuster, I don't know if Blockbuster had porn sections but my dad's stores had porn sections.

Avi Forrest:  It's an archaic time. Hulu, Disney+ have yet to exist, and people must venture out into the cruel winds of nature to get their movies. The films themselves are encoded onto these inscrutable bricks of black plastic and these mysterious gleaming discs. As a journalist born in 2002, I can really only speculate on the arcane, inner workings of these artifacts. Anyway, Diana's father owned a video store that dealt in things like VHS tapes, and DVDs. Shelves of things like action, romance, Steven Spielberg classics.

Diana Hong:  For a long time I thought I wanted to be Steven Spielberg, because that was like the only director I knew.

Avi Forrest:  Horror movies, drama and porn?

Diana Hong:  Like, I remember like reading a newspaper where like they were talking about how people were protesting my dad's store, because of the porn section. And I remember being like, "Oh my god like what are we going to do, people are so mad, are we going to close the section down?" And my dad's like "It's our biggest money maker, we're not doing anything."

Avi Forrest:  However, things were not always exciting in this wonderland of alchemy and analogue. The employees of her father's store would often get bored and for that they had set up a television to watch, when business was slow. But Diana wanted to watch things too, and nothing boring.

Diana Hong:  Like I would always play a goofy movie, that was my favorite movie.

Avi Forrest:  It's funny how much of Diana's life was changed in that video store. We talk about how this or that show changed our lives. But what we need to understand here is that when I say that television changed Diana's life, I mean it. One day, an employee of Diana's father was using the store's TV for something just awful.

Diana Hong:  Instead of like watching movies, he would watch golf. And like I'm like I want to watch a movie, so I would talk shit.

Avi Forrest:  The employee did not tell Diana to buzz off, or hit the bricks, or wassup, whatever phrases they used in this period. Instead, he told Diana that before she made fun of the high octane incendiary death match that was golf, she should try it herself first.

Diana Hong:  Have you ever played golf before?

Avi Forrest:  No, I can't say that I have.

Diana Hong:  I see why, I mean it's a very old, culture wise it's not the best, I'm going to be very frank about that, it's not the best. But there is something to like when you hit your first pure golf shot, it's kind of getting that first laugh. Like it's addicting, and you're just chasing that high again. And I felt like, as a kid, I was like "Oh I like this."

Avi Forrest:  And here's the thing, she wasn't half bad.

Diana Hong:  At first it was me loving it, and then I think my parents saw it as an opportunity for this to be a career, make money.

Avi Forrest:  Soon she started golf lessons. Not half bad, became decent. Decent became good. Good turned to great when Diana received a golf scholarship to Washington State University. The pursuit was settled. She had her focus on golfing greatness, a powerful swing sending her future out on to the course. This extended golfing metaphor, getting more and more convoluted as the ball of Diana's future rolled towards the verdant green of a college scholarship. It was right there, all Diana had to do was nudge it in. Diana got the scholarship, she went to college. But she felt out of place.

Diana Hong:  Like not a lot of diversity, like very white, very like, you know, Christian type of thing, right?

Avi Forrest:  And she slowly realized that maybe college wasn't the right move. Then Diana's father made a suggestion. Drop out, specifically drop out and focus on professional golf. And she agreed. So, Diana dropped out and headed home to California. Unfortunately Diana and her father were not on the same page.

Diana Hong:  His idea was like, to be successful you need to wake up at like 4 AM, start practicing at 5, it was eat, sleep, golf, that's it.

Avi Forrest:  He wanted more from Diana, more dedication, early mornings, nose to the green, no social life.

Diana Hong:  And I was like, I also want to be a person.

Avi Forrest:  Diana wanted to compete, yes, but she also wanted friends, a social life, time to herself, just even a little room to rest. When Diana returned to her father, she also came home to an argument, one of her biggest. Diana's father essentially told her she was a failure, that if she didn't work enough, she would amount to nothing. There was screaming, a lot of screaming. Then, Diana had enough.

Diana Hong:  I was like, well I just don't want to be here anymore.

Avi Forrest:  She left her parent's house, and her screaming father, and thought about where to go next. But where could she go next? She wasn't in college, her father was furious with her. She could chase after golf, I guess. She was caught in a great unknown, in limbo. So, she decided to go back to something she did know, back to college. She heard about a golf scholarship through her swing coach, to the University of San Francisco. And before she knew it, she was back in college golf. But here's the thing, the University of San Francisco was another opportunity for Diana to finish school, but it was more than that.

Diana Hong:  With golf, it's like a very lonely solitude sport. So, it's not like dating or like any sexual identity was even at the forefront of my mind. But I think when I started going to college and realizing like, oh everyone is trying to hook up with frat guys, it's not really my cup of tea. But then I kept being like, oh it's because I'm golfing.

Avi Forrest:  Diana mentioned earlier that Washington State was just not a good place for her, college was life was part of the reason. She also mentioned that the school wasn't particularly progressive. When Diana was 18 she knew that she was gay. Though she did have some queer friends to rely on for support and comfort, Washington State was not progressive at all.

Diana Hong:  But it was just like a long journey, and it was like primarily, I think, being in San Francisco, and being like, oh yeah, this is it. I sub-leased from someone, or sublet a room and they had a gay roommate and then a straight male roommate. And then I was sharing a room with another female, we had just met. Because we couldn't afford the rent on our own. I ended up coming out to the straight guy, before the gay guy.

Avi Forrest:  So, how long did it take you to come out to your parents?

Diana Hong:  I didn't come out to my parents till when I started comedy, I came out to them, but like not really came out., I was like hanging out with this girl before I moved to Florida, and they're kind of like "You're hanging out with person, you're like never home", all of this. And then finally, what happened was, the person I was dating was very like, "I don't want to continue this if you're going to be in the closet." So, basically, kind of like, guilted me into coming out. And so, I just told my mom, and my mom was like "okay, I'll tell your dad." And my dad and I never talked about it.

Diana Hong:  When I used to do stand-up, I would write it out word-for-word, and I would print that out. Now, I just drops notes, and a couple words, I'll know what I'm talking about. But like before I was like word-for-word, and my parents found it in my room. They saw that and it was like "Well you're advertising being gay." I had stuff about me being gay and they hated that I was like out about it. And so, that's when I told them about the dating thing, and they were like "Okay, whatever", it's kind of like, keep it quiet, type of thing, like we won't really talk about it. And then they found out, I said I was gay on stage, and then they like lost their shit. I mean I also have a bit about this but, yes, when me and my mom really addressed the gay thing, like gay marriage was still a topic. Because now it's federally legal right? Yes, so this is before, way before that obviously, but she was like, you know, gay people aren't human, so you don't deserve human rights. Like, she did not like the gay thing at all.

Diana Hong:  Because Koreans, I mean you want to know this now, because we're so popular and BTS looks very gay, but very homophobic country, just culture in general. They're getting better but like ten years ago, 15 years, even five years ago very homophobic.

Avi Forrest:  After Diana graduates in California, the time comes to get back to the green, professionally. She tried to start in Arizona but sickness and surgery stopped her from going very far. Maybe it was an omen. Eventually Diana found herself eying Florida as a potential start to her golfing career. This is where the rest of her life begins. Where she starts her new career as a professional golfer. Soon she'll be deployed off, like a fresh soldier, to fight for a future she definitely, absolutely wants. Yes it's golf-ing, and not the Gulf War, but the implications feel oddly similar, there's just one question left. What will it cost? In the face of all of this Diana decided to do a few things before she went to Florida, before her life existed solely on the green, mulling over which putter to use.

Diana Hong:  This opportunity came where I was like, I'm never seeing these people again, I'm going to like commit my life to this, so I was, like, let me do an open Mic.

Avi Forrest:  Specifically, she wanted to try performing in a comedy club.

Diana Hong:  And so I did an open Mic, I loved it. I was very drunk, probably a little blacked out, but overall I loved it.

Avi Forrest:  This was Diana's first time on stage. But the real start of her comedy career happens much later, but we'll get to it. Anyway, for now, the awful state of Florida, and Diana.

Diana Hong:  I hit a point in my life where was, in my career, there, that I was just like I think if I commit to this fully I can be a top player, but I don't know if I want to do the work. Like the work wasn't fun.

Avi Forrest:  It was time, it seemed, time for golf, time to perfect that perfect swing, time to walk hole to hole to hole over and over and over again. Time to win the games, get the money, make mom and dad happy.

Diana Hong:  But when I was growing up people, like my best friend's brother didn't know my name, he just knew me as the golfer. He was like "Hey, I saw your friend, the golfer." Like everyone just knew me as the golfer. So, I think that was the hardest part of like realizing, like the falling out of love thing, was also being like "Oh shit, I don't have identity anymore."

Avi Forrest:  Maybe you'll be what you always were, what you were destined to be, who you needed to be. Maybe you're not Diana, maybe you never were. You're not gay, or straight. You're not interested in comedy. You're not silly or imaginative or capable of anything else besides wrapping your hands around a golf club and sending that ball as far away as you can. Before you have to go find it, again, and again, and again.

Diana Hong:  I used to be a long hitter, like I used to hit it 270, if I was hitting it well. But, for whatever reason, I started hitting, and this like mental block, or something, starting happening where I couldn't even hit my driver 180 yards. And that's when I was like trying to figure out that puzzle piece. Because before I would like have fun, like trying to like analyze the swing, and figure it out, and how does the ball react to different shots, and like all of this, right? But, at that moment, because I was like playing for money and like "Okay, is this going to help, am I going to eat, is this worth it?", like all of this stuff, right. It became just like, "Oh this is so stressful."

Avi Forrest:  Maybe you were, are and will always be the golfer.

Diana Hong:  If I wasn't perfect, or if I couldn't figure things out it felt like the end of the world. Every single day I would wake up and it would just be like "Everything sucks." Like, it just felt so dark, and I felt like that's kind of where I was like, I can't live like this.

Avi Forrest:  Diana spent about three months in Florida before she realized that she didn't want to be there. When she wasn't working two jobs, she was spending between four and eight hours a day golfing. The weather was hot, and Diana was miserable. Diana realized that she couldn't golf for the rest of her life. She realized that she needed to get out, even if she had no idea what she was going to do next.

Diana Hong:  For like 13 years I only knew one thing, and then I woke up one day and was just like, nah! Like you hear about people that like, after their wedding day or something they'll wake up in a cold sweat and be like "I can't do this." That's what happened, like I just woke up in a panic attack, and I was like "I can't play golf anymore."

Avi Forrest:  Do you know how a grenade works? Once you pull the pin, a lever on top of the grenade pops off, which ignites a small spark on the fuse. At the end of the fuse is a small explosive. When that explodes, so does the rest of the grenade. All in all, after removing the pin, you have about four seconds.

Diana Hong:  Because I was like, either I'm going to end it all, or I need to get help.

Avi Forrest:  The one thing Diana thought was holding her life together was gone. Golf was gone.

Diana Hong:  So, when I made the decision to not play, I got so depressed I actually checked myself into a psych ward. And, I actually got booked for a show a couple of months later, and I was like, I don't want to flake on my first show.

Avi Forrest:  Diana decided that she needed to get help. She was worried about herself. But was also determined to perform in that comedy show. So, she entered the psych ward.

Diana Hong:  Apparently it was the Four Seasons of psych wards in Sacramento. And I was like you all haven't been to a Four Seasons. No doors, everything is a curtain, nothing was padded. So, it wasn't like high security psych ward, it wasn't padded, I mean there was beds, there was like a community room. You had to be monitored to use a pencil, like anything sharp. It was just like a hallway, and it was just a bunch of us, just hanging out and I think everyone really wanted a cigarette. Like, that was much pretty much the experience.

Avi Forrest:  There, there was no golfing, no constant moving back and forth, a break from the constant torsion of the last few months. Finally, a place to breathe, slow down, and stop. But that's not the end of Diana's story. She was having trouble mentally, and perhaps spiritually. She was down, below down, in the gritty bedrock under what everyone thinks is down, but not out.

Diana Hong:  On a selfish level, I just don't want to feel like I'm alone. On more like, I don't if the word will be altruistic, but like an outward level like that would be, I just know life sucks, and I know from my experience when you're laughing you don't have time to think about how life sucks. And to be able to provide that for other people is, to me, super dope.

Avi Forrest:  Even after all of that, after things that usually break people's spirits, like twigs, Diana knew something about herself. A small, unseen truth, something you would find beaten down and crumpled up in that tiny front pocket of your jeans. Diana was funny, after everything she'd been through. She was still focused on getting better and performing comedy. She had jokes to tell, and a mic waiting for her. And damn it, she wasn't going to let her audience down. After a week, she left the psych ward. And though there are plenty of other tales along the way, this is how Diana Hong started her comedy career.

Avi Forrest:  You split up with your partner, for a week you go into the psych ward, and then you do your first stand-up set, is that--?

Diana Hong:  Yeah. Damn when you say it like that, that's a lot.

Avi Forrest:  So, after all of that, where is Diana today? Well, Diana has a new partner, they've been together for around eight years.

Diana Hong:  She's beautiful, she's the most kind, amazing human. I'm very, very lucky. She loves dinosaurs.

Avi Forrest:  Things are better with her family.

Diana Hong:  Yeah, I mean my mom and I are a lot better, because my dad passed away a couple of years ago. I never really got to talk to him, as much. But my mom and I are a lot better, like she loves my partner. And I have like a whole thing in my stand-up about it.

Avi Forrest:  And she's playing a little golf again.

Diana Hong:  I'm taking a break, but I only started playing golf to see if I can qualify for the open for this documentary that we're doing.

Avi Forrest:  Life is better, but deep down Diana is still afraid of some things.

Avi Forrest:  What are you afraid of most, as a comedian?

Diana Hong:  I am afraid of, I think, I'm afraid of like the same thing happening with what happened with golf. That I'm going to wake up one day and decide I don't want to do this anymore. That's my biggest fear. Because I think, to me, that would say, I would have failed twice. And it's kind of embarrassing once you tell everybody you're doing something, and then just kind of having to restart my life and figure that. That's my biggest fear, is waking up and being like "I don't want to do this."

Avi Forrest:  Diana is a brilliant comedian, and even if she stops doing comedy, she's still just a really cool, tough person. So, after several mis-placed swings at a future lying on some uncertain green, Diana swung for the fences. Bounced off several stop signs, moving cars and fragile windows. And sunk it on stage, with a microphone, telling jokes.

Alex Chambers:  That story was produced by Avi Forrest--

Avi Forrest:  Wait, wait, Diana's soul was on the green, when comedy swung it's long silly arms further and faster than Diana could ever comprehend. Resulting in many new discoveries, deep within her psyche, relinquishing--

Alex Chambers:  For Inner States that was Avi...

Avi Forrest:  Wait, wait, no, no I got. Diana's putter, that represented her dedication to golf, slowly turned into a microphone, which represents comedy. And the once quiet spectators now laughing at her new--

Alex Chambers:  Okay Avi, okay, okay, thanks, I think we get it, yeah, thank you, thank you. That was Avi Forrest, for WFIU's Inner States. We're gonna take a break now.

Alex Chambers:  Inner States, Alex Chambers, this week's episode is Don't Go Pro. And we're listening to two stories about swerving away from competitive professional careers. We heard from Diana Hong, who became a comedian by way of professional golf. And, I don't know, I feel like the fact that Diana is a stand-up comic now kind of undermines the thesis of the show. Becoming a stand-up comic still sounds like achieving some kind of dream. This next story though, I don't think you have to worry about the protagonist landing somewhere dreamy. At least, not on the surface.

Alex Chambers:  Jack Canfield spent years training to be a professional singer. He went through a graduate program, and vocal performance at a top conservatory, the Jacob School of Music, here at Indiana University. Then last summer he was at Tanglewood, that's the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in Western Massachusetts. Also very prestigious. And he was invited to open their summer season, as a soloist in the first piece in the first concert. It was a big moment for his career, and he did really well. That was a year ago, and at this point, you might be wondering what's he done since then? To what new heights did Tanglewood launch him? Well, I am happy to tell you, he is now working in a warehouse, packing boxes in Utah. He's loving it.

Jack Canfield:  Life's good man, I get off at four, I can go ski every weekend, and I get three weeks paid vacation as a box packer.

Alex Chambers:  Jack's been on Inner States before, he's the one who drove his friend Seigen into the federal prison in Terre Haute, where Seigen was a spiritual advisor, to a man who was being executed. When I released the episode last year, I announced that Jack was making his solo debut with the Boston Symphony in July. I ran the episode again this year, and I asked Jack for an update on his career. Figured he was singing with an opera company somewhere. That's when he told me about his warehouse job. I wanted to see if he was really as happy as he sounded over email. So,I called him up, he was on his lunch break when we talked, and I think his feelings were mixed.

Alex Chambers:  I kind of want to let you finish eating, before I really start asking you questions.

Jack Canfield:  Maybe it will like really set the scene. Like this is a sandwich of failure, or something, you know. Like, previously I never had to eat sandwiches on my work lunch breaks.

Alex Chambers:  I let him finish his lunch, and then we got into it. When we first talked, Jack had a job with Opera Idaho in Boise. It wasn't a long term position. The pay was almost non-existent, and his housing situations were very interesting, as he put it.

Jack Canfield:  That's like an entire other podcast.

Alex Chambers:  He was auditioning everywhere he could find and he got into the fellowship program at Tanglewood. It was just for the summer but it was good news. Not only because he might get to sing with the Boston Symphony, he'd spend the summer with other talented younger musicians, and get vocal coaching from some of the greats, Dawn Upshaw, and especially Stephanie Blythe. He'd actually gotten wait listed for Tanglewood. But then he got a call out of the blue inviting him to come out. And to top it off, they said, how would you like to confirm with the BSO.

Jack Canfield:  They would almost always contract that out. I don't know why they decided to give it to a fellow. I think I was the only fellow that summer that performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, as a soloist. And, you know, it's not that I was better qualified, if anything I was probably one of the least qualified people to be doing that. But it just so happened that that's what they wanted to do, and I was one of two baritones there that summer, and I had more of the voice type that that piece needed.

Alex Chambers:  The piece was Leonard Bernstein's Opening Prayer. It's only about five minutes long, the orchestra plays most of it, and the baritone comes in at the end. The performance was being conducted by Andris Nelsons, the music director of the Boston Symphony, among the top conductors in the world. It was on the main stage at Tanglewood, the Koussevitzky Music Shed. The Shed is open to the lawns at Tanglewood, so between the indoor seating and the lawns, there would be about nine thousand people listening.

Alex Chambers:  Were you nervous?

Jack Canfield:  Yes! Yes, I was very nervous.

Alex Chambers:  Of course he was nervous. But, it's a little more complicated than that. This is the first clue, as to why Jack is now happily packing boxes.

Jack Canfield:  I think what was so frustrating and what has been really frustrating about my career, which I haven't really had one to speak of, but my journey as a singer, which is that I feel like I do something in a practice room or whatever, and it's at a really high level, and I feel really great about what I'm doing.

Alex Chambers:  Like, it sounds good even to his very critical ear. Keep in mind, Jack went to a lot of school for this. If there is one thing school tends to do well, it's teaching you be critical of yourself. Even so, Jack had plenty of moments in the practice room when he sounded good. Then, as soon as he got in front of someone his voice would change, it wouldn't function the same way. Even when he didn't feel nervous, even when he felt excited to be there.

Jack Canfield:  My voice wouldn't operate, it was not free. It was almost like my body was like, I don't want to do this.

Alex Chambers:  Our bodies do tell us things our minds aren't ready to admit. And this is all before Jack's realization. The first rehearsal for his solo with the symphony was okay. Jack was nervous, but also excited. That rehearsal went fine, he was a little timid, but it was fine. The second rehearsal went really well.

Jack Canfield:  I was like man, I feel like I represented myself well, I felt great about it. I was in it. And so I felt great going into the night of it. Always very bad luck to have a great final dress. And it's frustrating because that has been a consistent thing across my experiences as a performer.

Alex Chambers:  You're really good at dress rehearsals.

Jack Canfield:  Unfortunately, not all the time, sometimes it's worked out for the better.

Alex Chambers:  Superstition aside, it seemed like it was going to be okay. Jack reminded himself the Boston Symphony wouldn't invite someone to sing with them who couldn't hack it. Plus, he didn't even have to sing very long.

Jack Canfield:  This is 90 seconds of singing, and it's not particularly hard singing. There is one, I will say this, the very last note is very hard and very exposed and very scary. So, that's the drama, is that there's like 90 seconds of not challenging singing and then the very last thing is like walking a tight rope.

Alex Chambers:  But he'd been trained for this. He'd gotten hours of coaching on those 90 seconds from Stephanie Blythe, who's been singing with the metropolitan opera for almost 30 years.

Alex Chambers:  Talk about a vote of confidence, like she just made me feel like I was a singer too.

Alex Chambers:  Jack said Stephanie Blythe is not known for holding her punches.

Jack Canfield:  She's sort of notorious for saying what she thinks, sometimes, when maybe, not that she shouldn't, but like she'd be honest. And so it was really cool to have these people with credentials on my side. And it was this whole team of people for these 90 seconds with the BSO.

Alex Chambers:  And there he was, getting ready to perform. He had his own dressing room, with a name plate, next to the other stars of the concert. And then the time comes, and Jack's feeling good.

Jack Canfield:  Singing well, not that hard, I've done it ten thousand times.

Alex Chambers:  So, he heads up to the side of the stage, where he'll be going on. He's standing there, next to Andris Nelsons, who's conducted hundreds of concerts before.

Jack Canfield:  We're getting read to go out on stage and he's shadow boxing, and I'm like, "Oh wait, I'm feeling pretty good, I'm like maybe I should be a little more nervous."

Alex Chambers:  Especially because he's the first person to walk out, for the whole summer festival.

Jack Canfield:  Like, who's this kid?

Alex Chambers:  So, he walks out doing his best to look like he'd done it before.

Jack Canfield:  I got the door exit perfectly, but then like about a half way I was like "I shouldn't be here." I totally panicked.

Alex Chambers:  It was okay though, his training kicked in, he'd done it enough times, there was an element of automatic pilot that took over. So, there he is, he's listening to the orchestra, then it's time to sing, and that's going well. Then, right before that last note, there's this little pause, just enough time to panic.

Jack Canfield:  But it came out.

Alex Chambers:  He nailed it. Everything was good. Until it was time to bow, no one had walked him through that part of the process.

Jack Canfield:  Like I know there's a bowing situation, but I have no idea what to do. And so, at first I like bowed, and then I almost like high-tail it out of there. I was like, "No don't do that." But then, it's clear that I have over-stayed my welcome. And the people who are close the stay to the stage are laughing because Andris Nelson's like like "Alright, you can leave the stage now." I felt like a total ignoramus, which I was. But anyway, so I walk off stage and just about collapse. It was great, but it was stressful.

Alex Chambers:  But he'd done it. Seems like he'd be all set, right? Let's take a break, when we come back, we'll get into why Jack did not feel like his singing career was all set. Stick around.

Alex Chambers:  Welcome back to Inner States, I'm Alex Chambers. This week's episode is Don't Go Pro. Two stories about people almost becoming professionals in very competitive careers, and then swerving off to a different path, at the last minute. Right now, we're following Jack Canfield and his career shift from soloing at the Tanglewood Music Center in Western Massachusetts, to packing boxes at a warehouse in Utah, where he's much happier.

Alex Chambers:  After his performance with the Boston Symphony, Jack had a great summer at Tanglewood. He performed these six art songs by Claude Debussy, that he said you could spend your whole life studying. He was getting all this training from great singers, but there was one persistent problem. Whenever it was time to perform, this thing would happen to his voice. Even when he wasn't nervous. Like when it was time to perform those Debussy songs, he was really well prepared. He was excited to share the music, and his voice just shut off.

Jack Canfield:  In the moment I was like, well that's interesting, and now it's just a part of the story. And, the hard songs you've still got to sing them, and do them justice, and then it's not about how pretty your voice is.

Alex Chambers:  I mean, because that is kind of supposed to be how pretty your voice is, isn't it?

Jack Canfield:  Yes, and no. I think the singer in me is like, well no, I really don't care how pretty your singing is, there needs to be enough facility to where it doesn't take away from the music.

Alex Chambers:  And Jack did have that facility, but that's not all it takes. You're not just trying to make the notes sound pretty, or right, you want to express something. Classical singing is complex, you're executing this really challenging specific music, you're thinking about the feeling and the language, which might be at odds with the music for maximum effect. And you're also thinking about to come off a rest, how to phrase something knowing it's Debussy, and not some other composer. And on top of all of that, you need to be vulnerable. That's the part Jack's voice wasn't letting him do. And that summer is when it really got clear for him. Jack says he had a great summer at Tanglewood, but there was a lot of struggle along the way. And he started to really question whether he wanted to struggle that much, in order to feed himself.

Jack Canfield:  I'm actually an incredibly lazy person, and I don't want to struggle that much. And struggle is the right word. Like it's a kind of suffering.

Alex Chambers:  That's what was going through this head that summer at Tanglewood, then the summer ended. He wasn't ready to completely throw the towel in on singing, but he was going to stop looking for work.

Jack Canfield:  You know, and for me, at my stage in my career, it's not like people are knocking on my door. So, effectively I'm just probably not going to sing.

Alex Chambers:  He was okay with that. But then, someone did knock on his door. A woman from a small opera company in Duluth, Minnesota. They were doing this fairly new opera that involves two singers and a string quartet. It's about a trans woman Hannah, as she goes through her transition. Jack has already been in the show, playing the role of Hannah before. The company in Duluth had had somebody drop out and they wondered if Jack could do it. It was a professional role. She told them how much money they were going to pay him.

Jack Canfield:  For me, not making any money, I was like, that's a lot of money, I need to take it.

Alex Chambers:  The problem was, it was at the same time as this backpacking trip Jack had been planning for the past year. He couldn't reschedule the trip. It was opera, money, maybe not a lot of money, career, or, a 90 mile walk in the woods. I mean they were offering him money to sing, he took the job. He started to make peace with not going on his hike, and got going on the part. He had the score on hand since he'd been in it, and he pulled it out to look at it. He hadn't sung a note since Tanglewood. He found he was having to psych himself up for it, except he couldn't psych himself up for it, he just couldn't do it.

Jack Canfield:  So, I pulled a huge no no in this industry and I just sent her an email, and I was like "I've been thinking about leaving singing for so long", it's was this, from the soul sort of thing.

Alex Chambers:  I'm so sorry to put you in this spot, I'm sorry to accept your offer only to realize that I need to stop singing. I'm happy to help you find a replacement. He sent off the email. I imagine he was feeling a mix of dread and relief. Dread because, you know, he'd just committed a pretty serious faux pas in his industry, and relief because, you know, he'd just committed a pretty serious faux pas in his industry, and who'd want him now. No more knocks at his door from opera companies in small mid-western cities. He expected an email, but he got a call. The woman from the opera company had something to say to him.

Jack Canfield:  "Hey, that was really a great email, thank you, but can you just do it anyways." she was like, "We really need somebody to do this, can you just quit singing after you finish this production?"

Alex Chambers:  He thought to himself, maybe he should do it. He'd been trying for so long to make it work. At least he'd have this on his resume. And, you know, it would be a way to get started. Whatever industry you're in, you build relationships one by one. And what would he be giving it up for, this last shot at his career? A long walk, a hobby. It was a long walk he'd been planning for year, and he was excited for this new hobby. It was also going to be challenging, but in a different way.

Jack Canfield:  You know there's something simple about, well I'm going to walk 90 miles, and the benchmark for success is, not dying.

Alex Chambers:  Not dying makes the stakes sounds pretty high. But his odds were good, and the point is, it didn't really matter how well he did it. It wasn't like trying to hold a beautiful high note with the perfect combination of technique and vulnerability in front of nine thousand people, with the Boston Symphony behind you, he just had to walk 90 miles. So Jack went on the walk. He came back way more broke than when he had started. But in the end, it was the right choice. Because here's the thing, making it as a professional classical singer is really hard. It's not just that you have to be talented.

Alex Chambers:  So, Jack's girlfriend, Jenny, has a business called Stage Time. It's sort of a Linked-In for performing artists. One of the reasons she started it, is that most performers, no matter how successful they are, are juggling lots of different things. It's a side hustles. Jack pointed out that's the business model for the industry. And even then, talent and all that effort don't always lead to success, there's luck too. At times in our conversation, Jack sounded kind of fatalistic about the whole thing.

Jack Canfield:  It's a small industry, and so I know some folks that are at the top, not really well, but I've bumped shoulders with them. And I tell you what, for the most part, the people who are really at the top, were at the top when we were 18, and there wasn't like this struggle. The people who are really making a career out of it, they put a lot of things together very early.

Alex Chambers:  For a long time Jack had been climbing, trying to secure his footing in the world of classical singing. When he soloed with the Boston Symphony, he had made it to what a lot of us would see as a peak.

Alex Chambers:  You clearly got a pretty incredibly high level, you got to perform with the BSO Tanglewood.

Jack Canfield:  Yeah.

Alex Chambers:  It wasn't like they were just being nice.

Jack Canfield:  You totally lose perspective, you completely lose perspective, because up there I'm thinking I'm a failure, and that's one thing I was like, man this world class, they lay out this six minute bed of just spectacular beauty, and then I come on and just like fart on it. I did my best, but boy, that's like racing in the Indy 500 in a Subaru. It was just like, man! But you know, on the other hand exactly, you're right, like it was a lifetime experience, and I had earned it. Even though a part of it was just, right place right time. It was a good way, in some ways, to sort of round it out and say goodbye.

Alex Chambers:  Beyond the performance, Jack had a more personal peak too. Remember the veteran mezzo-soprano at the Metropolitan Opera who doesn't hold back on her opinions and was coaching Jack on the 90 second solo from Leonard Bernstein's Opening Prayer, well--

Jack Canfield:  I sang it for the very first time through for Stephanie Blythe, and it was quite touching, because it really felt like she inferred all of my singing history, my trip around the world listening to indigenous singers, everything, and she was just like, "I haven't heard you sing for that long, I know you could sing and have a career." And coming from her, who had the biggest of big careers, that almost was enough for me. This person who I felt like really understood singing in a way that I understood, as well, to hear that from her, was really cool. And she was more interested in talking about my trip around the world, listening to singing. After one of the final dress rehearsals, she was listening and we went and had Burger King together, which was fun. We drove and had Burger King and sat in the parking lot, and then she drove me back to my next rehearsal.

Alex Chambers:  If Burger King with Stephanie Blythe doesn't feel like success, then I think you might want to take another look at your priorities. Here's the thing about Jack, whether the feeling came from inside or outside, he's not sure, but he grew up feeling a lot of pressure to go out and make a difference. He was used to hearing this message that I think a lot of us hear, that he should work hard to achieve his dreams. For a long time he was trying to do something big. He traveled the world listening to indigenous singing communities. He was at Zazen for a week, practicing meditation and learning that a lot of it is about dealing with physical pain. He soloed with the Boston Symphony. Then he moved to Salt Lake City, and got a job packing boxes, at a warehouse.

Jack Canfield:  I show up to work, people are friendly, the job is very cut and dried. It's hard to mess up, it's not stressful. I get to listen to podcasts while I do it. Time goes by really quickly. It's simple, and that's really nice.

Alex Chambers:  He'd been so caught up in feeling like he had to make the world better.

Jack Canfield:  And there is a great relief in just like having a job.

Alex Chambers:  The thing about job though, is that eventually, hopefully after you've finished your sandwich, your lunch hour is up.

Jack Canfield:  I got to get going.

Alex Chambers:  Jack Canfield is a baritone who packs boxes in Salt Lake City. You're not likely to find him performing anytime soon.

Alex Chambers:  One more note about Jack's story. What I found interesting was that he'd come so close to making it in this prestigious, competitive, really elite career, and then left to work in a warehouse. That may have seemed like a fall, but I don't see it that way. I'm actually really interested in people's relationship to work regardless of the quote, unquote status of the job. So, if you work in a job that our society generally doesn't see as skilled or interesting, and you want to tell me about what we're missing, get in touch. You can find a contact form at

Alex Chambers:  That was baritone, Jose Eduardo Chama and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, performing Leonard Bernstein's Opening Prayer, also known as Benediction from his Concerto for Orchestra. That performance was conducted by Leonard Bernstein himself. And you've been listening to Inner States, from WFIU, in Bloomington, Indiana. If you have a story for us, or you've got some sound we should hear, you can always let us know at Alright, we've got you a quick moment of slow radio coming up, but first the credits.

Alex Chambers:  Inner States is produced and edited by me, Alex Chambers, with support from Violet Baron, Eoban Binder, Mark Chilla, Avi Forrest, LuAnn Johnson, Sam Schemenauer, Payton Whaley, and Kayte Young. Our Executive Producer is John Bailey. Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional from artists at Universal Production Music. Special thanks this week to Diana Hong and Jack Canfield. Alright, time for that found sound.

Alex Chambers:  That was a neighborhood, with what I think are adolescent red tail hawks. If you know there's something else, do tell. Until next week, I'm Alex Chambers. Thanks, as always, for listening.

Diana Hong practiced for 13 years to become a professional golfer. Which is how she ended up on this stage.

When you’re young, you dream that if you work for years at that exciting, sexy pursuit, you can become a professional. Maybe you even do that work. Then, one day, you wake up in a cold sweat and realize, you just can’t play golf any more.

This week on Inner States, we have stories of not one but two people who came really close to being professionals in very competitive fields, and then hooked left. Diana Hong fell back on…stand-up comedy. ‘Cause that’s a safe bet. And Jack Canfield is packing boxes in a warehouse. Quite happily, as it turns out.

A Note about Packing Boxes

What I find interesting in Jack's story is that he came so close to making it in this prestigious, competitive – really, elite – career, and then left, to work in a warehouse. That may seem like a fall, but I don’t see it that way. I’m actually quite interested in people’s relationship to work regardless of the socially-agreed-upon "status" of the job. If you work in a job that our society generally doesn’t see as skilled, or interesting, and you want to tell me about what we're missing about that, please, get in touch.


Diana Hong's story was produced by Avi Forrest. The Inner States team is me, Alex Chambers, with Jillian Blackburn and Avi Forrest. Our executive producer is Eric Bolstridge.

Special thanks this week to Diana Hong and Jack Canfield.


Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music.


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