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Technology enables both the mobile and not-so-mobile

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Charlie Bowen Charlie Bowen
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Charlie Bowen is a writer, teacher and web designer. He lives in Huntington.

A number of never's fell off my life list last month. Never been in a wheelchair. Never broke a bone. Never used a walker. Never been bedfast. It's amazing how five seconds of careless inattention can result in weeks of forced reflection on all the things that up until now you have taken for granted, like being able to fix your own breakfast, tie your own shoes or even wear shoes.

My transcendent moment came at 11:30 one drizzly Friday morning a few weeks ago. I'd just finished a conference call with several clients for whom I manage a big website, and my wife, Pamela, and I were hoping to get a jump on the weekend. We would begin with a drive to Cincinnati for a fun evening. Pamela had packed the car while I was finishing up on the phone, and now — carrying my briefcase with student essays to grade, my mind far from my feet — I was starting down the walkway in front of the house.

Then I hit that slippery flagstone. The next thing I knew I was on the ground, my left foot under me and my thoughts drowned out by … what's that? Oh, yes, that would be the sound of my screaming.

It took Pamela a while to get me vertical again — I am, after all, more than twice her size — and she pulled the car around and took me to the doctor's office, where technicians X-rayed me up and down.

"Well, the good news," said Dr. Bob Turner as we later reconvened in his office, "is that you didn't break your knee; the bad news is that you fractured your lateral malleolus." 

That's the outside, sticky-out part of your ankle. He showed us the X-ray. It was not pretty.

By the end of the evening, I had (1) a new blue cast encasing my leg from the sole of my foot to a few inches below my knee, (2) a prescription for an extra-tall walker and (3) marching — or rather, non-marching — orders from the doctor: "Don't let that foot touch the ground until I see you again in a week." 

So for the first time in my 65 years, I was joining the ranks of what Mom's church group used to call "our sick and shut-in friends."

But I quickly realized that shut-in no longer meant shut out or shut off. The technology that connects us all these days is a particular boon to the bedfast.

This became apparent even before we got home from the doctor. Throughout the afternoon, our omnipresent iPhones let us document the day with pictures: me glum and glaring from the wheelchair, us looking over Dr. Bob's shoulder at the ugly X-rays. Along the way, we posted some of these bleak images on Facebook. As a result, while still in the waiting room, I began receiving online messages from friends, notes ranging from heartfelt advice and earnest condolences to wry paeans to the latest example of my life of klutziness.

Meanwhile, I was already trying to figure out how I could continue working during my convalescence. Like freelancers everywhere, my business plan is simple: "If you don't work, you don't eat." So once I got home and butt-scooted my way upstairs to the recliner where I would live for the foreseeable future, I needed to figure out a way to establish a base of operations. In addition to teaching and writing, I had several dozen websites to maintain and update. For all of these activities, computer connections from the recliner would be essential.

It turned out I already had the skeletal structure for such a system. Last summer, as Pamela and I planned for a once-in-a-lifetime cross-country vacation, I created a system that would allow me to take my web business on the road, operational from any hotel room we might land in. In advance, I installed all my software tools — Dreamweaver, Photoshop, Open Office, Adobe Acrobat, etc. — on my MacBook. I also bought a 1-terabyte Passport portable hard disk, on which I copied all the files I used with my assorted websites.

This system that was designed as a mobile office could be fired up again now that I was the polar opposite of mobile. It was just a matter of copying the latest folder of web files to the Passport and having it and my trusty laptop within arm's reach of my recliner and within range of our in-house wi-fi network.

It was also fortunate that some of my critical files were already in the cloud. For instance, I use Apple's Numbers application for the gradebooks in my three classes, employing a rather complex system of linked spreadsheets to record attendance, test scores, grades on assignments and so on. Because I routinely update the gradebooks from any of several computers, I long ago handed over the care of the data files for each class to the file hosting service called Dropbox, meaning all this material was already reachable from the recliner without missing a beat.

Besides work, the digital life also gave me new weapons to combat one of the biggest challenges in my stationary life. In addition to the pain and the loopiness from the pain meds, it's the mind-calcifying boredom that we newly bedfast complain about. Boredom leads to depression and crankiness (a particularly risky turn when you're depending on others to feed you).

To counteract that, I decided to use this period to learn something new. As a young man, I used to be a pretty good chess player, but I'd not played in years. With an eye toward sharpening my game, I downloaded some free chess tutoring. Now whenever boredom crept closer, instead of drifting into in a debilitating dependence on daytime TV, I let my iPad give me a humbling mental workout.

Meanwhile, I gave my Facebook family an assignment: Work up a colorful cover story for my injury. I wanted a more interesting yarn than the truth: old guy falls on a slippery sidewalk. The winning entry: "Tell them, ‘No more kick-boxing for me, b'golly!'"