Our annual family holiday newsletter

Dearest family and friends,

2017 has been a busy year, full of new and exciting developments. Here are a few highlights:

Giving (and receiving) with the Family Giving Tree

2017 marks our 6th year of volunteering as a family at the Family Giving Tree. Strictly speaking, it's the 7th year for me and The Pea. She and I volunteered for the first time when she was 4 years old; she was too young to do anything other than hold a tape dispenser for me, and the boys were too little to help. Even at that age, I could see her mind opening as she realized that there were little boys and girls like her whose parents couldn't get them all the Christmas presents they wanted.  Volunteer opportunities for kids under age 14 are pretty scarce. I realized we needed the Family Giving Tree just as much as the kids who would be receiving the presents.

Trading pins at Hong Kong Disneyland

There are six Disney parks around the world -- Anaheim, Orlando, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Shangai -- and each one is unique in its own way. One of the things that makes each park unique is the merchandise. When we visited Hong Kong Disneyland, I had a great time browsing through the shops and checking out what each one had to offer. Naturally, as pin trading enthusiasts, we paid special attention to the trading pins. We just couldn't miss the opportunity to discover and collect some one-of-a-kind pins! Hong Kong Disneyland's pin selection did not disappoint. Here's the rundown on the beautiful and unique trading pins we found at Hong Kong Disneyland:

5 reasons to visit a California Welcome Center

Heading out to California for winter break? Great choice! There is so much to do and see in the Golden State, it will take you a lifetime to do and see it all. I've lived here for over 20 years, and I'm discovering new things all the time. 

If you're spending winter break in California, you probably already know where you're going... but you may not know exactly what you'll be doing. There's no shortage of "Things to Do in CA" articles and blogs and websites. It's difficult to know where to begin! One resource I've found invaluable is the VisitCalifornia.com website. Visit California is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting California as a tourism destination. You can find tons of suggestions for things to do in California on their website. If you prefer to do your travel research on the sofa instead of in front of a computer, you can order a free visitors guide, a glossy publication filled with stunning photographs that will make you want to book travel arrangements on the spot. 

However far in advance you like to plan your California trip, be sure to carve some time in your schedule once you're in California to drop by a California Welcome Center. There are 16 centers scattered throughout California, and they're well worth a visit. On our recent trip to Southern California, we stopped by the California Welcome Center in Buena Park. It's just 5 miles from Disneyland, 15 miles from Huntington Beach, 20 miles from John Wayne Airport and 20 miles from Los Angeles. We were so glad we did. Here are five reasons why it's worth your time:

2017 Disneyland holiday trading pins

You know you're a Disney geek when you can spend a full day inside a Disney park without getting on a single ride. There are so many other things to entertain you: the shows, the parades, the shopping, the dining experiences... and the pin trading.

If you like Disney characters and memorabilia, you'll love Disney pin trading and collecting. Half the fun is shopping for bright, shiny, new pins, and the other half is trading pins. You can trade with other pin collectors, or you can trade with cast members around the park. We started collecting and trading pins in 2012, and have been enjoying it ever since.

Disney releases new pins year round, but I have a soft spot for the holiday pin trading, because Disney's holiday pin designs are so stinking cute (click here to view some of Disney's holiday pins from past years).  Also, I love the fact that you can't get these pins at any other time of the year. Here are some of the cutest Disney holiday pins that I ran into this year:

Halloween Costume Watch 2017: The Pea

Every Halloween I like to blog about the costumes we're wearing and how we made them. I usually feature each member of the family, but this year I have to make it a one-man show.

This year, The Pea decided to go all out for her high school's Spirit Week, which is held the week before Halloween. For each day of Spirit Week, classes (freshmen, sophomores, juniors, seniors) are assigned different themes, and students dress up in that theme. Every day, each class nominates two students to represent their class in a costume contest. Each day, Pea came up with a costume each day that got her nominated four days out of five, and won Best Costume twice (today's results aren't out yet, so hopefully she'll get a third trophy!).

There's no point in featuring anyone else's Halloween costumes. Mine is a store-bought Pooh onesie. 3Po and Jammy haven't even started planning their costumes. They'll probably wear one of The Pea's costumes.  Alfie isn't even wearing a costume. This year, all the oohs and ahhs belong to The Pea. She totally deserves it.

Sweet memories of the Musem of Ice Cream San Francisco

Museum of Ice Cream SF

As a child, I always wanted to visit Willy Wonka's factory; today, I finally got the chance. I first heard about the Museum of Ice Cream (MOIC) last summer, but since I had no plans to visit New York, I had to watch enviously as visitors sniffed wallpaper, sampled ice cream, and buried themselves in sprinkles. When they announced their latest pop-up installation in San Francisco, I knew I had to go. If you like ice cream and selfies, this is the museum for you! Keep reading to get the inside scoop (yes that's an ice cream pun!) on San Francisco's latest destination for the cool (another ice cream pun!) set:
Museum of Ice Cream SF

Five things you must know before your teen applies for a DMV learner's permit

Well, we put it off for as long as we could, but it's like trying to stop the tide from coming in. Those darn kids just won't stop growing up! Last week, The Pea finally got her driver's permit. Both Alfie and I got our first drivers license when were 17, so 15 1/2 seemed ridiculously young to start driving. How responsible can a teen that age be? But we bowed to the inevitable... and almost immediately The Pea proved our point about responsibility. We left the entire process of getting the permit to The Pea -- signing up for online driver's lessons, taking them, getting an appointment, gathering the paperwork. In typical Pea fashion, she didn't bother to gather the required paperwork until the night before her DMV appointment. This resulted in yours truly suffering through the morning commute traffic to get the proper forms and signatures so that The Pea wouldn't have to reschedule her written test.

Parents of 15 year-old would-be drivers, learn from my mistakes and PLAN ahead! Here are five things I've learned from this experience and written down so we don't make the same mistake when 3Po and Jammy are ready to get their permits:

How to prepare for the August 21 Total Solar Eclipse

In just 12 days, the entire US will witness a rare celestial event: a total solar eclipse.  Total solar eclipses happen every 18 months or so, but not very many people can see them. Some are visible over the middle of the Pacific Ocean, others from the tip of Greenland... you get the picture. The last time a total solar eclipse was visible from the US was 99 years ago, in 1918. The next total solar eclipse to be visible from the US will be in 2024, then again in 2045.

Finding our inner Katniss at Arrowland

Arrowland Philippines archery

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be Robin Hood, Merida, or Katniss?  Archery isn't the kind of sport that you can just do in your back yard or street corner (unless you live on acres of land). I've always wanted to try it, but never really got the chance until our recent trip to Manila. Archery and the Philippines aren't really two words that I associate with each other, but since discovering Arrowland, we've decided that every trip to Manila is going to include a visit to Arrowland for the chance to live out our Hunger Games dreams (just the archery part, not the killing tribunes part)!

McDonald's in Bangkok

McDonald's Thailand has its share of unique menu items, such as the Samurai Pork Burger and McFish Dippers; unfortunately, we never got to try any of them. We were in Bangkok for such a short time (3 days) that I decided to prioritize the wonderful native Thai cuisine. However, we did drop by a McDonald's for a late night snack (a soft serve ice cream cone dipped in a hard mango-flavored candy shell).

McDo Manila 2017

I've been eating at McDonald's Philippines since I was 12 (when they opened their first restaurant there), so this is not the first time I've blogged about McDo in the Philippines. Yup, we even have our own local nickname for it. Please note, it's not pronounced Mc-Doo or Mc-Doe or McDoh. The best I can come up with is Mc-Daw (rhymes with saw), except the vowel sound in "Daw" is extremely short (glottal stop), not drawn out the way it usually is in English. 

A few observations I've made over decades of eating and enjoying McDo:

1) Over the years, the menu has evolved from purely American burgers/fries/soda/milkshakes to more local menu items. My theory: in the beginning, McDonald's American-ness is what attracted customers, but over time, McDonald's had to keep up with local competitors.

2) Serving sizes are much smaller. A small size soda in the US would be a large size soda in the Philippines. A small size fries in the US would be a kiddie size fries in the Philippines.

3) Prices are much cheaper than in the US. A lot of that is due to the exchange rate, but I think McDonald's Philippines has to keep their prices lower in order to remain affordable for the masses. Most of their menu items are about 50 pesos or 1 US dollar, and I don't think there are any single items above PHP100 ($2), or any combo meals above PHP200 ($4). A plain soft serve ice cream cone is PHP10, or 20 cents!

Green Tea Ice Cream: all you need to know about McDonald's Hong Kong

McDonald's Hong Kong had quite a few additions to the menu beyond the usual burgers, fries, and nuggets, like chicken wings, chili chicken burgers, and side dishes like sweet corn.  Even if you don't eat a full meal there, it's worth seeking out a McDonald's in Hong Kong just for one item: GREEN TEA SOFT SERVE ICE CREAM. Check out the yummy local menu items below (or just scroll to the end for drool-worthy photos of the ice cream):

McDonald's and learning about local food culture

I've gotten a lot of grief from family, friends, and strangers for my weird desire to check out the local McDonald's restaurants when we travel. Don't feed your kids junk! Eat real food! You can get McDonald's at home! There are so many local foods to try! First of all, don't let your experiences with US McDonald's restaurants shape your perception of McDonald's restaurants abroad -- I've found the ones abroad to have food that is far superior to any of the ones in the US. Second, some of these places serve their burgers with a ton of crisp lettuce and tomatoes, as well as side dishes like corn and tomatoes, so it's real and healthy.

The only one of those arguments that has any merit with me is the last one. I realize that every time I eat at McDonald's, I'm forgoing the opportunity to sample local cuisine. But I would argue that the local McDonald's food is, in a way, local cuisine. For better or worse, Western culture has permeated other cultures; it's not like I had to look very far to find a McDonald's! The local menu adaptations give me a glimpse of what foods the locals love. I, for one, find it fascinating to see how McDonald's has adapted to the local culture!

Here are some unique McDonald's menu items that we saw from our summer 2017 trip to:


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Cranberry Orange Walnut Muffins

Walnuts are one of nature's superfoods; they're chock full of omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, vitamin E, and more. Research has linked walnut consumption to improved metabolism, improved bone health, coronary heart disease prevention, cancer prevention, type 2 diabetes prevention, mood boosts, and more! 

Easter Bunny photos through the years

We used to make a big deal out of Easter when the kids were small. Every year, we would attend multiple egg hunts -- community egg hunts, egg hunts at friends' homes, egg hunts at our home.  At some of the bigger events, they would get to see the Easter Bunny, and they would treat him like a big celebrity.  But for some reason, I never made a big deal out of Easter Bunny photos. The Easter Bunny was not a big part of my childhood and I've always found him a bit creepy (as you can tell from the photo below, Baby Pea agrees with me).

A delicious secret: our local pop-up patisserie

pop up pastry bakery

Alfie always says I'm terrible at noticing things that are right under my nose. I'm always the last to realize when it's raining, when the milk has run out, or when he cuts his hair (to be fair, he keeps his clipper set at 1/8 inch and cuts it twice a week). The same goes for restaurants: they come and go in our local downtown area, and I'm never the wiser. I certainly never would have noticed the long line for the best pop-up patisserie ever had I not run into a friend one weekend morning. She invited me to come along for the best pastries in the Bay Area. With a description like that, how could I resist?

25 Easter Egg fillers for teens and adults

Easter is just 1 week away! Now that the kids are teenagers, we no longer attend Easter Egg hunts, but we still like to keep the celebration going with our own egg hunts in our back yard. Easter Egg fillers graduated from candy and stickers and erasers to Lego minifigs, dollar coins, and Disney trading pins.  There are lots of teen and grown-up trinkets that can fit into an Easter Egg!  Who says the little kids get to have all the fun?! Here are some ideas for Easter Egg fillers that grownups will love:

Tips for renewing your child's passport

The Pea's current passport is set to expire next month, so we renewed her passport today. Since she is under 16, we had to renew it in person. Renewing US passports in person has always been a tedious process, but this time, somehow, it turned from tedious to almost nightmarish.

It certainly seems like the number of passport applicants has skyrocketed. If you need to apply for or renew your child's US passport (or if you need to do it for yourself, and need to do it in person), read about our experience and learn from our mistakes! Or just scroll through to the bottom and check out my tips for applying or renewing in person.

Knitting TIps for Beginners


Never in my life did I think that I would learn, much less love, knitting. My mother taught my sister and I how to embroider and crochet when we were about 6 or 7, but I was always the messy one. I loved to cross stitch, but my work was never very neat, and I never got beyond crocheting small, ugly doilies. Knitting always seemed much cooler and more practical, but there was no way I could ever do it. No one in my family knew how to knit,and it looked even more complicated. When the kids were born, my mother in law knitted sweaters and blankets, but it all looked way too difficult for me.

This year, I finally decided to teach myself to knit, and I'm loving it! It's definitely shaping up to be a hobby that helps me relax and get away from obsessing over politics on Facebook. Right now I'm in that honeymoon phase where I'm knitting every day, and I fully expect to taper off to two or three times a week. But even if I end up knitting just two or three times a year, I'm happy to have learned a new skill. I don't know why I ever thought it was so difficult!  If you want to try out knitting (hand knitted things are sooo hipster) but don't think you can do it, take it from me and take the plunge. I learned how to knit simply from watching videos, and if I can do it, anyone can. I've put together some tips for beginners to make it even easier. Happy knitting!

Start with chunky yarn and needles

In the beginning, your hands will feel huge and clumsy. It only makes sense to avoid the baby-fine yarn and skinny knitting needles! I would start with size US 13 (9.0 mm) needles and bulky yarn (#5). You'll have a lot more yarn to hold on to, and you'll be be able to see your stitches more clearly because they'll be larger. As an added bonus, you will need to do less stitches to complete a project than if you use fine yarn, so you'll be able to complete your first project sooner!

Start with the basics

You don't need to learn how to cable knit right from the start. In fact, the only four skills you need to start knitting most projects are casting on (getting yarn on the needle), knit stitch, purl stitch, and casting off (getting the yarn off the needle and completing your project). In a pinch, you can leave the purl stitch for later and just cast on, knit, and cast off. There are tons of videos online that will teach you these four skills, and within 30 minutes, you'll be off and knitting.

Make something right away (but keep it simple)

Where's the fun in knitting a square?  Like I said, as long as you know how to cast on, knit, and cast off, you can already knit a scarf, a blanket, or a hat!  If you have young girls in your life, I recommend starting by knitting a blanket for their American Girl dolls. Okay, that's essentially knitting a square, but it's a square with a purpose. Another great alternative is to knit a pussy hat. It's essentially a knitted rectangle that you fold in half and sew the sides down. My first knitting project was a pink pussy hat, and having something (or someone) to knit for really helps with your motivation.

Don't worry about how to hold your needles

When you watch knitting videos, you see people threading yarn through their fingers in all kinds of complicated ways in order to hold the proper yarn tension. Don't let it intimidate you. There is no one right way to hold needles. There is no one right way to hold yarn. The usual expression for being clumsy is being "all thumbs", but I felt more like "no thumbs" when I started knitting. I had balance one needle upright by jamming one end into my stomach because I felt like I didn't have enough fingers or hands to do everything! Eventually I figured out a way to hold my needles that worked for me, and so will you.

Don't worry about speed

When we visited Bruges a few years ago, we saw a bobbin lace demonstration and were so impressed at the intricacy and speed. We couldn't believe how quickly these little old ladies' hands flew! I'm sure they started out slowly, and that's the same with knitting. It takes me days to knit hats that some people can finish in an hour or two, but it's not a competition. I just concentrate on making my stitches as nice and even as I can.

Don't burn yourself out

Knitting can be monotonous work, so don't try to do too much at once. Lift your eyes from your work and take a break every now and then so you don't cramp up. Right now I'm in that phase where I'm so pleased with myself for learning a new skill that it's all I want to do. But I try not to knit for more than 30 minutes at a time so I don't get sick of it.

Find a charity to knit for

We all know that practice makes perfect, but the thought of knitting thousands of stitches for months on end to make a single blanket exhausts me. I've found that knitting hats gives me the motivation to knit because they are easy and relatively quick to finish. But my family can only wear so many hats! So my plan is to knit hats for babies at our local pediatric ward, and for cancer patients at our local Ronald McDonald house. I've contacted both organizations and they both take new knitted hat donations. At the end of the year, I hope to have a basket full of hats to donate!  When 3Po and Jammy were born, they received little knitted Santa hats to take home (they were born in December). They were adorable, and I've always wished I could thank whoever knitted them. I feel good knowing that I'm paying it forward and that some future babies will be wearing the hats that I'm knitting.

newborn baby twins

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Missing: Teen Brains

Part of my job as social media manager for a diabetes nonprofit is to attend and recap educational events featuring medical professionals or other experts on diabetes. Most of the time the information shared is relevant only to people with type 1 diabetes, but many times I come home with pearls of wisdom that apply to anyone.

My latest a-ha moment came during a talk by a clinical psychologist who works with teens with type 1 diabetes. He was talking about getting teens to manage their condition more diligently. He said that teens are pretty much developmentally incapable of thinking about the long-term health consequences of diabetes because part of their brain is missing. That prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that deals with executive function, attention, is not yet fully developed in teens. It won't fully develop until their mid-20’s, and even mid-30’s.

Women's March San Francisco

I've read right wingers' posts accusing liberals of being "special snowflakes" who can't handle losing the elections. The best rebuttal that I've read: Okay, so liberals are special snowflakes. Do you know what happens when a million snowflakes get together? You get A STORM. Watch out. Winter is Coming.

Yesterday, the first Winter Storm happened. I'm talking about the Women's March. On January 21, the day after Trump's inauguration, about half a million people marched in Washington DC to support women's rights, equality, diversity, and inclusion (and yes, to voice their opposition to Donald Trump). They were joined by millions more in hundreds of cities across the US and the world. In the Bay Area, where we live, there were 3 marches to choose from: Oakland, San Jose, and San Francisco. The Pea and I originally planned to attend the San Jose rally, but when it turned out she needed to go to San Francisco to buy pointe shoes, we decided to attend the San Francisco march instead. Armed with our pink pussycat hats, rain jackets, and rally posters, we headed up to the city to add ourselves to the headcount of people who wanted to be a part of something big. Boy, what a crazy, amazing, inspiring experience it was!

Thanks, Trump

So the day I've been dreading since November 8 has arrived: Donald Trump's inauguration. It's going to be a long, frustrating 4 years. I've already begun the countdown to the 2020 elections. But what to do in the meantime? For starters, I'm attending tomorrow's Women's March in San Francisco.