Home Improvement: The Front Yard

Conrad and I have been renting a cute single-family home that was built in the 20s. Since I moved in with him a few years ago, I’ve slowly improved the interior by converting Conrad’s “bedroom” into an actual living room, using the dining space for its original intention, and snagging better furniture here and there each year.

Now, the challenge is the exterior. Our landlady recently visited and asked why we don’t live in an apartment. We don’t use the backyard much, which is a shame because it’s huge. We mostly just use it as Keby’s dog park. And the front yard, while well maintained, isn’t totally a beauty.

So, I’m challenging myself and Conrad to improve both, starting with the front yard.

Our front yard is, at best, very… Blah… It has been neglected for some time now, and the long drought doesn’t really help. The tiny leaves from the willow tree have dried up on the dirt and have made an unattractive coat of tan on our dried patches of grass. I’ve lost the will to make our grass grow… I am constantly envying beautiful gardens during our daily doggy walks around the neighborhood, but I am so ready to do something about it.

I expressed my aspiration of growing a decent garden to a coworker of mine, and she was generous enough to lend me a pretty cool book called Sunset Western Garden Book. It’s basically a dictionary of all different kinds of plants that thrive in Western North America, covering 24 zones.

Considering that our yard doesn’t get much sun thanks to the 2 fully grown trees eating it all up, I would have to find shade-tolerant plants. Luckily, I came across a section that satisfies my search for plants that don’t need much sun. I’m also going to throw in another criterion – bird attractors. Because, hey – who doesn’t like birds in their garden??

Here is my short list of plants that may find a nice, shady home in our front yard. I’m excited to share, as I’d love to hear your thoughts if you have experience growing any of these plants.


  • Aka Carpet Bugle
  • Perennial
  • A. reptans – popular ground cover variety
    • Makes thick carpets of lustrous leaves
    • Spring to early summer
    • Feed in spring or late summer
    • Water every 7-10 days in summer
    • Mow or trim off old flower spikes
    • Subject to root-knot nematodes, rot and fungus diseases where drainage or air circulation is poor

Cotula squalida

  • Aka New Zealand Brass Buttons
  • Evergreen perennial
  • Grows a few inches high, good for ground cover in full sun to medium shade
  • Average water

Impatiens olivier

  • Aka Poor Man’s Rhododendron
  • Perennial, shrubby
  • Blooms in partial or deep shade
  • Needs some summer water
  • Attracts birds

Impatiens wallerana

  • Aka Busy Lizzie
  • Perennial, usually grown as summer annual
  • Best in partial shade with begonias, fatsia, ferns, fuchsias, hydrangeas
  • Grow from seed, cuttings, or buy plants from flats
  • Rich, moist soil
  • Most useful summer annual for shady gardens especially in warm-summer climates
  • Single-flowered kinds are best for massing or bedding – nearly cover themselves with flowers
  • Attracts birds

Iris foetidissima

  • Type of beardless iris
  • Grows in sun or deep shade
  • Needs little care
  • Extremely drought resistant
  • Real attraction – large seed capsules which open in fall to show numerous round, scarlet seeds, admired by flower arrangers


  • Aka primrose
  • Ideal environment: high shade, cool atmosphere, moist soil
  • Perennials
  • Zone 22-varieties
    • P. malacoides – fairy primrose, baby primrose; bloom February-May; set plants in October or November; use under high-branching trees in containers; grow as annual; indoor or cool greenhouse pot plant in cool climates
    • P. polyantha – almost any color; blooms from winter to early and mid spring; most datable; large flowered strains are Clarke’s, Barnhaven, Pacific, and Santa Barbara; novelty species is Gold Laced; excellent for massing in shade, for planting with bulbs, or in containers

I proposed to my boyfriend.

Why I Proposed

It was the 2.5-year mark when my boyfriend and I had the conversation about our future together. On the car ride home from an amazing Thanksgiving trip with his family in Sedona, Conrad initiated the discussion with, “So, my mom and I were talking…” I knew immediately where he was going.

As any woman in a long-term, intimate relationship or any hopeless romantic would hope, the discussion went super well. We established that we were in it for the long haul, that we both saw the other in our future, and that a long, fulfilling marriage is definitely something we both want and with each other. Great. Perfect.

But what was funny to me was that, even though we had a conversation about our future together, it wasn’t a proposal. It absolutely should have been, but because Conrad and I both had the implicit expectation that a ring had to be involved, we weren’t engaged yet.

The idea of an engagement ring was a pain in my butt, only because I didn’t know what I wanted. Conrad needed some reference for what he should get me, but I could not send him a design – doing so would have felt disingenuous. The only criterion I had was that it had to be a fair trade gem of some sort, or it could be a grandmother’s engagement ring. I also wanted him to get me an engagement ring that reminded him of me because I knew I’d love whatever he decided to get.

Eventually, though, my need for an engagement ring became almost nonexistent. What I wanted way more than a ring was that moment together, the actual proposal, the unmistakable commitment of marriage. I wanted to be able to look back on the moment and recall how big our hearts were for each other, not how big the rock was.

On our last trip to his family’s house in Mexico that July, 8 months after our commitment talk, I encountered so many moments that could’ve been the moment. Floating on the Sea of Cortez hand in hand; kayaking across the beautiful blue ocean; gazing deeply into each other’s eyes with the sun setting over the sea… I just wanted to blurt out, “I love you so much, I want to marry you!” at least 50 times that week, but since I had the hint that Conrad planned to propose sometime in the future, I practiced restraint.

That’s when I realized, Oh, my gosh. I want to propose to Conrad! I want to give him the moment I’ve been wanting all this time! I want to show him how much he means to me, how badly I want to spend my life with him.

So why wait for Conrad to do something I already expect him to do and diminish any surprise and shock from it? Why pressure him into buying a ring that could cost him a fortune, a ring that I’ve never really truly wanted in the first place? Why automatically exclude myself from the role of proposing just because society tells me to?

I wanted to do none of that.

The Planning

And so began the brainstorming. My girlfriend Aida got my juices flowing, throwing ideas about how I could propose. And the idea that stuck real good was integrating what we love doing together most – camping and playing board games – making the actual proposal super personal and super special to the both of us.

Camping in particular holds a deeply special place in our relationship. We never camped as kids, so we did our first actual camping trip together at Sequoia National Park just a few months into dating each other. That trip was the first time he’d said “I love you” to me. We’ve been camping regularly ever since.

What’s perfect was that, around the point I decided to propose, we were already planning to go camping in a few weeks, so all I had to do was create the proposal materials. (What do you call a proposal symbol that isn’t a ring??) The original plan was to camp at Big Sur, but because of the Carmel fires, that got nixed. So Conrad suggested a quick backpacking trip in North San Diego County called Barker Valley. It wasn’t Sequoia, our annual camping haunt, which would have been amazing, but trying something new sounded just as amazing.

So, I told his sister Allison the news and asked her to redesign a character card in a game Conrad and I have played hundreds of times called “Love Letters.” One of the characters basically looks like an Asian woman. Plus, she’s a guard with sword at the ready. Strong female character of color: hell yes.

Originally, I requested that the action text at the bottom of the card be changed out for my proposal, but Ali went one step further and imposed my face on the character also. At first, I thought it was way too dorky to use my face, but she made a great point – I’m proposing to her brother, who is a dorky guy. Her reassurance that he’d love it made me feel more confident about it.

I got 6 copies of the card (1 extra) for the deck, and when Conrad and I got to packing for our trip, I discreetly switched out the guard cards for my proposal cards. So far so good.

The Proposal

We drove out to Palomar on Saturday morning and started our 3.5 mile hike down Barker Valley around noon. Not a great time to do any sort of hiking with the heat and all, but we still got to our campsite with enough sunlight to pitch our tent, wind down, smoke, talk, chill, and make dinner. We were the only ones in the meadow for most of the day, so it literally was just us two and our doggy Cheyenne.

Conrad cooked jambalaya for dinner, definitely the best I ever had. It could’ve been that flower, but it was most likely Conrad’s amazing chef-ness. His ability to cook an excellent meal on a backpacking trip just confirmed for me that my decision to propose was so, so right.

The sun was setting by the time we finished dinner, so we cleaned up our communal area and went inside the tent. I suggested we play Love Letters, of course, so I took it out of my pack and started shuffling. While Conrad changed into his PJs, I sneakily fixed the cards so he would draw my proposal card at his first turn.

When he drew it, he immediately felt the difference of the two cards in his hand – an actual card from the deck and my card. He flicked the corner of the card, testing the weight, and tried to look more closely at the card. The lighting wasn’t great so he couldn’t see well – the sun had set by then, and we only had light from one of our headlamps. He asked me, “Is this a different deck? It feels different. And the guard looks different. Though, I don’t remember now what it looked like before…”

“Why don’t you read the action?” I replied.

He read it to himself: “Name the one person you want to spend your life with. If that person agrees, you both win the game.” He smiled and looked at me for a few seconds, trying to read my face to see if it was a joke or something serious. He later told me that at that moment, he knew that what he said next was uber important. “You, of course,” he answered.

I smiled, grabbed his hand, and said my proposal with my cheek resting on his shoulder. I’m embarrassed to recount what I said because oh. em. gee. It was corny. Short and sweet, but so corny. But Conrad apparently loved it because he said yes! We laughed, we kissed, we embraced, and we relished the moment. I turned off the headlamp and the stars were all out, shining through the screens of our tent. We held each other and admired the sky, smiling and giggling like fools about our future together as a betrothed couple. Yeah, I used the word “betrothed.”

It was a perfect night. Even more perfect than I could have planned.

What Conrad Thinks

The true cherry on top is that Conrad absolutely loved that I proposed to him. He’s worked in the wedding industry and has seen literally hundreds of weddings. So he’s seen every kind of couple, every style of wedding, and he has become anti-convention because of how unremarkable and forgettable 99% of those weddings were. To him, a lot of the details seemed to be the same from wedding to wedding, so he knew his own wedding had to be special somehow.

When I decided to propose, I didn’t even have that in mind. To me, it just felt right that I do it because, well… I wanted to. I was excited to. But my proposing spoke so much to his anti-conventional-wedding attitude, and he was ecstatic.

On top of that, I involved his best friend and sister Ali in the whole thing as designer of the card. It added another layer of special for him, as he’s really close to her and had such a kick that she was in on the secret.

The payoff came in his lasting reaction afterwards. For at least few days straight, he was in awe that I, his girlfriend, had proposed. Let alone in a way that folded in our mutual hobbies and spoke to his attitude about the conventions of weddings. It made him very proud.

What I Think

I had an incredible time planning the proposal and actually proposing. I was nervous, even though I knew he’d say yes. The moment was exhilarating, heart wrenching, and an absolute adrenaline rush.

I hadn’t thought about how people would react. Though, I wasn’t at all surprised that even friends responded in sexist ways. For example, a friend joked that I proposed because I couldn’t wait for him to do it. I figure that’s what many people perceive when they hear that I proposed, but I don’t care. He and I both know I could’ve waited a long time for him, but impatience wasn’t my motivation. It was my overwhelming love for him that drove me to the decision. We have a relationship that I so cherish, so why not show him that somehow?

My decision also had a little to do with empowering myself as a woman and going against the grain. I can count on one hand how many women I know who proposed to their men, and that’s a shame, really. I have friends who consider themselves feminists, yet wait for their boyfriend to propose. Which I’m not knocking at all, but why do so many women opt out of even the possibility of proposing?

In my mind, a good marker that feminism is widespread (or better yet, when feminism becomes a word of the past and its principles are the norm), would be when it is common that a woman proposes to her man, and she is not perceived as desperate, impatient, or that she “wears the pants.” We are definitely not there yet.

For the health of your eyes, reduce your blue light exposure

A few months ago, I started getting regular headaches. It would happen at least a few times a week, usually after a day at work. I blamed it on my increased use of my eyeglasses and thought my prescription was incorrect.

So I asked my optometrist about it, and he had an answer right away; it certainly was not my prescription. My headaches were being caused by my computer screen, which emits blue light. Too much exposure to this particular wavelength can cause serious damage to your eyes, which are especially sensitive to blue light.

I was getting headaches at work because I’m on my computer almost the entire time! And it doesn’t help that I have two computer screens, one big enough to be my television.

My doctor tried to sell me on glasses that block blue light during computer use, and I really wanted to say yes for the practicality of it. But they looked so dorky! None of the styles he had available were stylish enough to attract my buying power, so I turned his offer down.

Instead, I found something better! It’s free software called flux that allows you to set the amount of blue light your computer emits throughout the day. I keep it simple and have it on my entire workday, and you can turn it off easily if you’re doing design work. I work on Photoshop a few times per week, so that feature has been essential. Even if you do more hours of design work than I do, flux will be a great help.

Even iPhone got on the bandwagon, and in iOS v 9.3.2, they installed what’s called “Night Shift” that does the same thing – blocks blue light. You can schedule it automatically, the same way you can schedule your Do Not Disturb setting.

It’s is pitched as a way to help you sleep better, but I have a personal rule not to look at computer or TV screens right before bed (30 minutes to an hour is a good buffer). Night Shift is great, but the discipline not to look at your phone for a lengthy period before bed is much more effective.

I’m sharing this information simply because most of us have phones for hands now, and many of us do a lot of work on computers. Let’s protect those eyes and keep their health for as long as possible, even in the SnapChat and Facebook age.

4th of July Weekend aka My Break from City Life

The 4th of July holiday evokes images of fireworks, barbecues on the overcrowded beach, s’mores, and lots of time spent just looking for parking (in the city). The only thing I did on this list is the s’more part because for the second year in a row, I spent my holiday weekend at Moses Gulch.

It may become my and Conrad’s annual 4th of July trip. Going off the grid for even a few days really rewired my brain for the better, and I still dream of sleeping under the stars and Sequoias with no city noise or gross smog polluting the air. (One night, though, some bros decided to blast their country music – absolutely the rudest thing you can do in the middle of the forest besides burning it down.) And, though I’m a people person, I get tired of people every once in a while (my introvert takes over at some point). Not seeing or dealing with very many humans was kind of heavenly.

Okay, so reflecting on why I loved this trip even more than last year brought me to a conclusion: camping will be an annual trip. If not Moses Gulch (I could go there quite a few times before I get tired of it), it would be some other remote camping site in the middle of the forest. Maybe sleep among the redwoods sometime in the near future. And, of course, Lulu and her wonderful parents have to be there. What a bonus it was to pseudo-serendipitously bump into them and end up sharing their campsite! They certainly made the trip exciting and saved me and Conrad the prospect of spending the whole weekend on our own, which wouldn’t be terrible, of course.

A 30-45 minute hike uphill and worth the trouble.

San Carlos, Sonora, Mexico

I finally made it south of the border, after living my lifetime in sunny SoCal. This past weekend, I enjoyed beautiful, sunny, blue San Carlos with some friends hankering for the (so close but yet so far) SoCal summer sun. I couldn’t find many words to describe how pretty it is down there because it literally made me speechless. It also helped that lodging (right on the beach) was free, roomy, and also very beautiful; and our gracious hosts brought down their quad and awesome dune buggy both on which we didn’t ride enough.

The trip couldn’t be too perfect of course. All five of us got a bad round of food poisoning on day 2 – we knew that crab tostada from the Soggy Peso Bar was way too good to be true…

But it didn’t deter us from having a wonderful time in possibly the most beautiful place on the west coast. Even being sick there felt like paradise. I’m definitely earmarking my next vacation for this place again – I wouldn’t mind that at all.

Childhood meal: fish and tomato

Tonight, I decided to make a simple, tasty dinner to replicate my mom’s fish and tomato dish, something she prepared for me and my sisters pretty often when we were kids. She loves her fish, and so do I!

My mom prefers her fish deep fried, her tomato heavy with soy sauce, and just a spritz of lemon. I made a few modifications: I baked the fillet drizzled in sesame oil, was more generous with my lemon, and added green onion for color. A little different than what my mom is used to, but I think she’d like it.

Tomato and green onion dressed in soy sauce and lemon
Tomato and green onion dressed in soy sauce and lemon


Baked swai fillet drizzled in sesame oil and green onion with rice
Swai fillet baked and drizzled generously in sesame oil and green onion with white rice

Gourmet Work Lunch: Open-Faced Sandwich

I technically don’t bring my lunch to work. I don’t plan well enough ahead on the weekends to plan out and prep my work lunches, and I’m absolutely fine with that only because I found a type of work-lunching that I enjoy.

If I’m feeling super motivated and concerned about how expensive eating out can be, I buy a weeks’ worth of ingredients. Making sandwiches is a great place to start: for mine, I buy deli meat, a huge block of medium cheddar cheese, arugula or spinach, mayo or whipped cream cheese (if you haven’t tried it, please do), and tomato. Berries are usually my side because 1) at least one kind is in season at any point in time and 2) I love, love, love berries.

All together, a week’s worth of sandwiches and berries cost $10, give or take. That comes to $2 a day! I love being frugal in general, but even if I didn’t have to be, I would probably go for $2 a day anyway. And I’m not compromising on taste at all– I make good sandwiches, if I say so myself! Plus, the time I set aside each day to make my lunch is my time for quietness and meditation. While others might just want their lunch immediately on a workday, I don’t at all mind taking a few minutes to set it up.

For this week’s lunch, I made an open-faced sandwich on sourdough with

  • Aidell’s uncured dried-tomato and garlic salami (I highly recommend, it’s super tasty!)
  • Muenster cheese
  • Baby arugula
  • Dash of red wine vinegar and olive oil
  • Blueberries and cherry tomatoes on the side

Open-faced sandwich

It cost me way more than I’d like – $28 – because the closest grocery store to my workplace is Bristol Farms, which marks up their products like crazy. (Even Kraft cheeses are priced like they’re premium products…) I also bought enough for 10 days, so I’m set until next Wednesday. So this pretty lunch still cost me less than $3 a day.

Even if saving money isn’t in your interest, tasty, fresh lunches should be!