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Episode 80. Christmas in Cincinnati

In this episode, Jen V. hosts a special guest – her son! She learns about how her early work/life choices made an impact on him. Go back in time to 2007 with this story about a unique Christmas in Cincinnati.

We wish you a happy holiday season and prosperous 2024. May this be the year that you realize you don’t have to be perfect to be successful.

Jen. V. & JRT will be back together in January 2024 for more interviews with powerful leaders in Kansas City.

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Read the transcript below

Hey, it’s Jen Vellenga.  This is the Speak with Presence podcast, where perfection is overrated, leaders listen, and we all speak up to influence change.  It’s a little bit of a departure from our usual interview episodes, but it is December 23rd, right before Christmas. And this interview took place yesterday on the 22nd.   JRT, my co-host, is not with me today. She will be back in January.  As I edited this episode, it made me think that this is really a story of privilege. Not trust fund kind of privilege, but the privilege of a dual income family who can make some decisions based on that scenario. And our listener base is in a similar situation. 

But as I listen back through, I am reminded how fortunate we are to be in the position we’re in to make decisions about taking adventures instead of just taking care of basic needs, like a roof over our head and food in our bellies.  And I’m reminded that a large majority of our world is not in a position to make those kinds of decisions.

So I’m just recognizing that we are grateful.  And still, this story has meaning for those of you who are in a fortunate position.  You have more choices than you think you do.  As we look toward 2024, the message here is to consider what stories you’re telling yourself around what’s possible and what isn’t.

We’re wishing you all a very happy holiday and a prosperous new year.  Here’s Episode 80: Christmas in Cincinnati.  Enjoy.

Today, it’s Christmas in Cincinnati on Episode 80. And I promised JRT a story to finish out 2023 with a special guest. This is a shout out to all you loyal listeners who might remember this conversation from last January.  That would be 347 stories on our podcast.  I think I have lots of stories to share.  I am double dog daring you. Oh gosh, okay, yeah.  Okay, I take the challenge.  Challenge on. 

I failed. I did about eight stories on the podcast in January, and I lost steam. I lost steam for solo podcast recording, but not for telling stories. And I actually did the math. I told 250 stories to clients, one-on-one and in group coaching. I told about 30 different stories during podcast episodes.  I did 30 stories in corporate training and at least 40 social media stories. So that’s 350. So that’s pretty darn close. I reached my goal. Unexpectedly, through all the ways in which I tell stories.  And the best stories always have a surprise or an unexpected twist, just like my Christmas in Cincinnati in 2007.

I was an assistant professor teaching acting, directing Shakespeare, and my research expectation was to work professionally outside the university. So that spring when my directing mentor called me from New York to offer me a job as his assistant director for Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline at Lincoln Center, I knew I had to say yes.

And like most theater gigs, it was temporary, just the fall semester. But there were big challenges.  I was teaching and living in Miami, and Lincoln Center is in New York City. I would have to get my classes covered, and I’d have to get out of my university directing assignment.  And then there was the issue of my son starting preschool that fall.

This is impossible.  It was a good gig, and my husband was supportive, and my chair said, go, go, go.  I was to be paid by both the University and Lincoln Center, so we decided to do it.  We sublet a place in Queens and we decided to start our son in preschool there and our parents would help.  I had it all arranged.

And then my mentor called back.  Scrap the Lincoln Center plan. I need you in Cincinnati in the spring.  My heart dropped.  All my New York plans were made. But I listened. Jenny, he calls me Jenny,  I’m directing a new play called The Blonde, The Brunette, and the Vengeful Redhead and I need your help. It’s a co-production between Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and Dallas Theater Center. I need you to be my associate in Cincinnati and remount it on your own directing it in Dallas. I’ve got an opera gig I’ve already committed to during the Dallas remount. Can you do that?  I’ll do both. 

I don’t know what made me say this, but well, I didn’t want to give up Lincoln Center, so I said, yes.  I’ll do both.  Terrific, Jenny. I’ll send you the contract. Oh, and Jenny, you’ll need to run rehearsals the week of Christmas in Cincinnati because I’ve got prior plans I can’t break.  Damn, how am I going to do all of this? 

Luckily, I have the most supportive spouse and a chairperson who is just as crazy as me. And he said, go, go, go.  We’ll figure it out. Students will be fine. And now I was committed.  And the fear and my worry set in, and the questions came from well-meaning individuals.  You’re just going to start your son in New York City schools? His first year of preschool?  You’re going to drive Miami to New York and then to Cincinnati?

Well, how are you going to work in Cincinnati at Christmas without your family?  Well, no.  Actually, no, I’m not doing that.  They’re coming with me.  And so they did.  But I worried. And I wondered if we were doing the right thing. Especially for our almost four-year-old. He would turn four while we were there. And at Christmas time, and also his birthday. I mean, what would happen to him? 

But as it turns out this ended up being the best Christmas we ever had.  And even though we worried a lot about our son’s stability through the chaos of fall 2007 and winter and spring of 2008, we don’t regret that decision.  But we worried a lot.  And that’s the story. But remember, I said that I had a special guest today.

Well, my son, that little three- to four-year-old is with me. He’s home for Christmas. He’s 20, and just had a birthday. So, I’m going to ask him some questions about the instability of such a crazy decision to go to New York and Cincinnati and spend Christmas there and start preschool in New York and all of those things that we worry about as working parents, especially working mothers.

So Peyton, PJ Vellenga, welcome to the show. Thanks for having me. I’m so glad to have you here.  Alright, you just heard that story.  Did you or do you know all of that or are there some things that surprise you in the way I told that?  I know some of that. I don’t really remember you balancing all of that at the same time.

Do you remember living in New York City, or in Queens actually, for a little bit? Do you remember anything about that time? I do. I mostly just remember school. And, like, soccer practice. Three-year-olds on the soccer field? Yeah, just really being really bad at soccer. And getting hot dogs after the soccer games.

Do you remember that that wasn’t your house? That it was a sublet? I didn’t know that it wasn’t ours. I didn’t know that. It was an old house. I do know that. Yeah, we sublet it from a former grad school professor of mine.  So was there anything in your mind about, oh my gosh, my house is in Miami, and I’m in New York, and I’m supposed to be, and what have they done? They’ve pulled me out of my home and created this chaos. Any of that? I don’t really remember that. I mean, I’m sure you guys told me it was going to be like some kind of adventure or something, so I’m sure I was pretty excited about it, no matter what it was, but yeah, I don’t really remember being sad or missing home or anything.

What are the things that stick out in your brain as memories?  I guess like meeting new people there and then also, so it was my first winter because we were living in Florida and so that was getting used to the little climate.  And I think you had to wear a coat for the first time. Yeah. So that was interesting. I think I remember walking to school with like dad and grandpa and grammy.  Yeah. I don’t know. It was definitely interesting. 

When you think about those memories of New York City, are there some that stick in your mind more than others?  I remember, like, slipping on ice for the first time, and that hurt a lot.  I remember going on the subway and getting donuts in the subway. I think it was Dunkin Donuts. Yeah, there was a little side Dunkin Donuts in Penn Station because we took the Long Island Railroad from Queens to Penn Station, then I transferred to the Red Line to get to Lincoln Center.  But sometimes you would ride with me to Penn Station and the Dunkin Donuts people thought you were so cute in your little cute coat and they would usually give you a free donut. That’s New York City for you. Yeah, I remember that. And yeah, and then also, like, I remember grabbing a cactus or something with spines and that hurt, but I don’t remember a whole lot.

I guess the point that I’m trying to make is that as parents, which you wouldn’t know yet because you’re a college kid. But as parents, we worry so much about what we’ll do to our children if we pull them out, go on some kind of adventure and how will that scar them? So I think we can hear now clearly that the memories that you have are those of a three or four year old which is, you know, I touched a cactus and it hurt and I slipped on the ice and it hurt and I got a free doughnut.  But there was no turmoil and chaos.

So, what about Christmas in Cincinnati? Do you remember that as being super different than any of your other Christmases? Not really. Santa still came. Well, did you worry that Santa wouldn’t find you in Cincinnati? I don’t know. Maybe a little bit, but he still came. Are you guessing that or do you remember that? I don’t remember that. 

So what do you remember about Christmas?  I remember getting a lot of Spider Man stuff. We all had matching Spider Man pajamas. That was pretty cool. I remember getting like one of those web shooters, the Spider Man web shooter. Shot silly string out of the apparatus on your wrist.  That was pretty cool. That was pretty awesome. 

But as a parent, we got some cheap, last minute sale deal on a kind of crappy artificial tree and we got that little sleeve of velvet bows, and we just put bows all around the tree and thinking, Oh, we don’t have all of our ornaments. Like, does any of that register for you? No.

What about the meal? Don’t remember the meal. Yeah, the meal came from a grocery store. We were just like, we’ll order turkey and the sides and paper plates.  What else do you remember about Christmas in Cincinnati? It was cold. I don’t really know. I know a lot of like family, I don’t know if this was the same time at Christmas, but people came to see us, like both grandmas, Aunt Becca.

That was for New Year’s. I guess I should say. Before Airbnb, it had been an apartment, but we rented it as a hotel specifically for those days of Christmas because rehearsal was not happening at that time, but we knew the grandmas were coming in and then Becca and the kids and Mike. For those of you listening who don’t know who Becca is, Becca is my best friend from college who I will interview one of these days, but they came for New Year’s.

So you remember people came in and visited us. Yeah. But no thoughts about, well, this isn’t my house and I should be at home for Christmas. No, I think I was just stoked to see everybody. And that Santa came. Yes, and that Santa brought me presents. Exactly. 

The point I’m trying to make is that as parents, when we make decisions about where we go and what we do and the things that we engage in for our work, sometimes we just say no because we just don’t think it could happen.

We don’t think that it could work well and we worry about scarring our children. So those who are in theater and on tours, they know that kids just come along. Those of you who might be in the military. You just pick your kids up and move, and they are resilient, and if you give them consistent love, care, and they know that home is their family, that will keep them stable.

So I guess this is just a message from the future for those of you who are in this stage of life to say, my 20 year old is doing okay. We didn’t screw you up. I mean, we probably screwed you up in other ways, right? Yeah.  But not from that. Right. Some good adventures? Yeah, it was fun. We are so glad that we got to share some of our adventures with you when you were a little guy.

Yeah, it was cool. I know, okay, I do know this. When I tell my friends at school that I went to preschool in Queens, they think that that’s pretty sick. So yeah. Alright,  well PJ, I am just really super honored to have you on the podcast. I love you so much. I love you, too. Merry Christmas, sweetie. Merry Christmas.

So, maybe not the drama you expected to hear. And his memory is just a child’s memory, which we should expect. But the difference between what I felt walking him to preschool, getting on the train, getting into Lincoln Center, working 12 to 14 hours a day, getting back on the train, walking up the hill, back to the house at midnight.  Working with 30 plus performers, some big names, big personalities, all lovely people, but big needs when you’re putting on a big show like that.  It was also the time that I realized we had made the right decision to raise our son in a university lifestyle. 

The message, as always, is you don’t have to be perfect.  And you have more choices than you think you do.  We’ll be back in January of 2024.  Until then, happy holidays, and thanks for listening.

Can you tell me what you had for breakfast? I didn’t have anything for breakfast today.  What did you have for lunch?  Lasagna.  Okay, what was in the lasagna? Cheese. (Laughing) Okay.


Jen V. & JRT

Jen Vellenga and Jennifer Rettele-Thomas are the co-founders of Voice First World®, a communication and executive coaching company. They train executives and leaders on the Presence Paradigm™, a communication technique created from Jen V’s decades of training actors to perform authentically, with presence, on stages, on audio, and video. If you want to learn more about how to speak and lead confidently, book a discovery call at

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Jen has been magical in helping me to identify my voice and my VOICE! The ways that she has holistically addressed my strengths and my areas of improvement have all made me feel so much more confident.

-Cate R.
Politician, Chicago, IL