Work online, live anywhere

Welcome to “A Location-Flexible Life!” It’s been my dream for several years to have the flexibility to live in different locations by doing all of my work online. 2013 is the year that I’m making that dream a reality!

I’ve been inspired by reading the blogs of other “digital nomads,” and since so many friends have asked me to blog about my experiences, I thought it would be fun to start a blog for my friends to read, and also to inspire others.

If you’re new here, you may want to start with these posts:

2

The Advantages of Working Independently, Online

MacBook Air and iced tea

Several friends have asked me what it’s like working independently, online. So this post will be about my work life. I thought it might be fun to do it in the form of questions and answers.

What is your work?

I create online courses for librarians and educators about mobile apps. I focus on the creative ways that apps can be used for learning and content creation, since mobile computing and “natural user interfaces” are turning out to be a great way to enable lifelong learning and creativity for people of all ages and abilities.

I offer my courses through the continuing education programs of Simmons Graduate School of Library & Information Science, and the American Library Association. I also offer self-study versions of those same courses on Udemy.com.

In addition, I’m working on two books about apps (one self-published and one traditionally published). Sometimes I speak at conferences or offer workshops, but mostly I create products and services that are offered only online – which means I can work from anywhere with an Internet connection.

Why did you choose this type of work?

I like this work because I believe that education is one of the best ways to make the world a better place.

I’ve always had a techie bent, and I enjoy learning new technologies, then explaining them in ways that save people time and show them the potential for their creative work. I also enjoy going through loads of material (articles, books, apps) to find the very best resources to recommend to busy professionals.

I focus on librarians because I was one for many years (first as a music librarian, then in nonprofit, corporate, and academic libraries), so I have connections to that audience and much love for the world of libraries.

Why do librarians need to learn about mobile apps?

Libraries have always been about helping people find information for use in their lives, and not just as storehouses for books. Libraries are changing with the times, as they always have.

R. David Lankes offers this statement about librarians – and it’s one of my favorite mission statements:

The mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities.”

These days libraries are:

  • including virtual collections with their physical collections,
  • transforming their facilities into places for content creation – not just consumption,
  • offering training about new technologies,
  • and serving as key partners in community relations.

For a useful summary of what’s happening, see “The Changing Landscape for Libraries & Librarians in the Digital Age.”

Mobile apps fit right into this, since they are tools for knowledge creation.

What’s your typical daily routine?

One thing I like is that there is no typical day. However, I do like having routines – they make it easy to be productive and provide a framework for my work that I don’t have to think about.

My work changes each month, depending on which courses I’m currently teaching and which new books or courses I’m developing. I sometimes take a few days off between projects to focus on having fun, and I’ve been known to take a whole month off (like when I first moved to Mexico last year).

During work weeks, here’s my typical routine:

Early morning:

- Read technology news and email on my iPhone and set up tweets for the day in the Buffer app. (I tweet about libraries, mobile, ebooks, technology trends, etc., and have a following of mostly librarians & educators).

- Have breakfast (a green smoothie every day!), listen to streaming radio using the TuneIn Radio Pro app, and exercise.

green smoothie

Mid-morning:
- Walk to a local coffee shop, library, or co-working space to work on projects with my MacBook Air.

Lunch:
- Go home for lunch (a big salad).

Afternoon:
- Walk to a different coffee shop or similar space to work on projects with my MacBook Air.

Early evening:
- Go home for an early dinner (vegetarian).

After dinner:

- Sometimes I have a meeting on Skype with one of my collaborators or co-authors. And when one of my online classes is in session, I have a live (text-based) chat with some of the students in my courses once a week.

- Chat with friends online via Facebook or Skype, watch a favorite TV show on my MacBook Air (Netflix, or similar), go for a walk, and every once in a while go out to a movie.

- Research places to live or visit in the future, make travel plans, research technologies I have questions about, read blogs and websites that inspire my work habits, skim Facebook and post some updates, organize my photos, browse Instagram and add some photos, draft blogs posts, etc.

Of course all of that is subject to change, but that’s the general framework and I enjoy it.

Do you miss the community of co-workers that you had while working as an employee?

I miss specific people, but I don’t feel this work is solitary. I still have a community of people to collaborate with. The difference is that I can choose who to collaborate with on each project and the collaboration ends when the project ends. I can also choose when to work alone. I have many friends and colleagues to get feedback from, and to discuss ideas with. Two of my projects involve collaboration with former co-workers. Sometimes I hire someone to work with (such as a copy-editor for one of my books). All of this happens online, mainly with Skype (sometimes using screen-sharing). So I still have a sense of community with a variety of talented and fun people.

How do you balance daily work with long-term strategy?

One of the things that’s challenging is figuring out how much time to spend planning and strategizing vs. time spent creating (writing, making videos, putting courses together, marketing, etc).

This year, since I had some strict deadlines related to my book projects, I decided to focus on daily creative output for all of January and February, and wait until late March to set aside time to look at the big picture.

To help with that, I’ve signed up for an event called Pioneer Nation, in Portland, Oregon in late March. It’s an event for independent entrepreneurs, designed to help us increase income and create sustainability for our businesses. I’m looking forward to meeting others who are working in a similar way, participating in hands-on workshops, and getting inspired by other successful independent entrepreneurs.

Pioneer Nation

In early April I’ll take at least a week to focus on my own business strategy for the coming year. I don’t have all the answers about how to balance my time, but I know I need to spend some time on a regular basis, looking at the big picture.

How does your work life now compare with your work life as an employee?

When I worked for an employer, a lot of time was spent attending meetings, serving on committees, filling out paperwork, reading email, communicating with co-workers about everything, and other similar tasks. Less time was spent creating useful products and services – and that’s the part of the work I enjoy most. I was a web manager and usability specialist for the MIT Libraries for over a decade and then was promoted to head of our new user experience department for the last two years I was there. Both kinds of work were enjoyable, but being a department head meant less hands-on creation work and more managing people.

Now that I’m working independently, the majority of my time is spent on creating useful products and services (online courses, books, a web software app called Feedwelder, and in the future I’d like to create some in-person events or small conferences).

I’ve always preferred the hands on technology and creation work and now I can focus on that.

How do you balance work with play and relaxation?

One of the main reasons I wanted to leave my full-time job and work independently was to have more time for play and relaxation. I’ve always enjoyed my work (both for an employer and independently), but found it hard to carve out enough time for other things I care about. I think our work culture in the U.S. is focused too much on working long hours – I don’t think that’s healthy.

Now that I’m independent, I can combine work and play in flexible ways that I enjoy. For example, I lived in Oaxaca, Mexico for five months last year. When I arrived in the beginning of May, I decided to take the whole month off to explore my surroundings, learn my way around, practice my Spanish, and do tourist-y things. That was a nice way to start life in a new country, rather than trying to work at the same time.

From June – September I mostly worked (according to the routine above), but also took a few days off here and there to go on tours, side trips, explore museums, etc. It was great not having to cram in all the tourist activities into a week or two, as I would have done if I was “on vacation.” I could just live my life and when I felt like it, take a day or part of a day off to explore. I took a whole week off when a friend from Boston came to visit me, and enjoyed seeing the sites with her.

Me and my friend, Evelyn in Oaxaca

At Monte Alban ruins, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Monte Alban ruins, Oaxaca, Mexico

Monte Alban ruins, Oaxaca, Mexico.


I love having this flexibility — both the daily rhythms and the monthly/yearly rhythms.

Are you a consultant?

Many people have assumed that if you’re freelance, that you’re hiring out your time to consult on projects, or provide services (such as web design) to people and organizations.

I’m not doing that because that would still mean selling my time and might take even more time that when I was working for an employer. Selling your time is limited by the number of hours in a day, and you still have to find work – it’s not automatic, like a salaried job.

Instead, I’m creating products and services that can leverage my time and bring in money after I’m done creating them. That’s why I put self-study versions of my online courses on Udemy.com. I’m taking work that I already did to create the courses I offer through Simmons or ALA and offering them to those who prefer to work without deadlines on their own schedule.

Apps for Librarians on Udemy.com

Self-study version of my course on Udemy.com.

This brings in regular monthly income while I’m creating the next product, or taking a month off to have fun.

I’m so happy that it’s easier than ever before to create online information products and sell them online. It makes for an enjoyable working life with more balance. I’m lucky that the kind of work I do lends itself to creating products (courses and books). And nowadays, many types of work can be turned into online courses – I’ve seen people having success selling courses and books about yoga, photography, cooking, and more.

Why do you work in coffee shops so often?

People working in a coffee shop.

Chango – my favorite coffee shop in Echo Park, Los Angeles.

I enjoy being able to work from home, but I like even better working in coffee shops! For some reason, being around others who are working (there are usually lots of other people with laptops), and hearing the quiet, steady background noise of conversation and coffee cups, really helps me focus.

I enjoy being in different locations in the morning vs. afternoon, and walking in the neighborhood to get there. I love good tea, and it’s nice to find places that offer good kinds of tea to drink (iced or hot, with no sugar – that’s my favorite).

Since many people find that gentle background noise helps with concentration, there are some apps coming out that provide this. I think this is interesting! I haven’t tried these two apps yet, (because I use real coffee shop noise and Pandora for listening to music), but I’m curious about them.

  • Coffitivity: App that plays sounds you would hear in a coffee shop!
  • Focus @ Will: App that plays music designed to help you focus.

What kind of laptop do you use?

My MacBook Air

10-hour battery life!

I recently upgraded my MacBook Air from the 11-inch to the 13-inch model for two reasons: 1) it’s nice to have a slightly bigger screen, since I don’t usually work with an external monitor (I miss those large screens, though!), and 2) the new one has 10-hour battery life! This is great. It means I never bother to bring the power cord with me and I don’t need to sit near an outlet. It lasts all day. I LOVE that!

What is some of the best advice you’ve read that has influenced your work habits?

I constantly read tips and advice online about work and productivity. The advice that has helped me the most is this: work regularly in small chunks, every day.

When I start to feel overwhelmed by the number of tasks facing me, this helps. Just focus on the day and get a certain amount of work done.

Here’s an quote that inspired me from “Accomplish Any Goal by Doing Something Small, Every Day.”
“Building a body of work (or a life) is all about the slow accumulation of a day’s worth of effort over time. Writing a page each day doesn’t seem like much, but do it for 365 days and you have enough to fill a novel.”

Do you find yourself working all the time?

No – I love my work, but I also love play! I’m currently reading this book: Play: how it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul.

He explains why play is so important and encourages adults to make playing around a priority (it’s not just for kids). I love that idea and since I tend to work a lot (enjoying my work), I like being reminded to make play a priority.

Here’s an idea that I love:
Why You Should Stop Working at Noon Every Day
It’s so true that work expands to fill the time, and if you get organized and have a shorter window to fit your tasks into, it can be very motivating to know that you’ve got the afternoon to go out and have fun, enjoy nature, play and get exercise. I haven’t quite reached the noon deadline, but it’s something I aspire to!

What are your favorite apps that help you work & play?

Since I’m really into apps, I use MANY different ones every day. I’m working on a future post that focuses on all the apps I use and what I use them for.

But just for a start, here are a few that I particularly like:

Evernote
I store everything in this notes app: travel plans, receipts, links to articles I want to read, apps I want to try, and I use it keep a daily work log where I track my time. A great feature is that you can email things to a private address and they will appear in your Evernote. The desktop and mobile apps synchronize, so you always have your notes with you.

Evernote for iPhone

Todo
I use this app to make to-do lists and check off items as I do them. I use it for both work and home tasks (this app makes that easy by sorting into “contexts”).

Todo

Abstract puzzle apps
When my brain needs a rest and I just want to relax, I play one of these games on my iPhone for a few minutes. I like abstract puzzle games the best, for some reason. All three of these games have beautiful colors, shapes, and sound effects that I enjoy.

  • Flow Free
    Flow Free

    Connect dots, fill the board, cute water droplet sounds.

  • Dots
    Dots

    Connect the dots into lines or shapes. Very nice sound effects.

  • LYNE
    LYNE

    Slow, meditative game. Take your time finding a solution.

How would you summarize the advantages of working online, independently?

Here are the biggest advantages for me:

  • I can control my own schedule, optimizing my daily, weekly, and monthly work/play cycles.
  • I spend more time on the kinds of work I enjoy most (content creation).
  • I can live anywhere and move anytime, combining travel with work.
  • I have more time to make relaxation, play, and social life a priority.
  • I get direct feedback from students who take my courses, showing the value of my work. (Somehow I see the impact more than when I was working for an employer, though I’m sure that work had a positive impact, too).

So if you’re thinking about working for yourself online, I highly recommend it!

2

From Boston to Los Angeles

Recovering from a broken ankle in beautiful weather instead of ice and snow

On Feb. 6 I left snowy Boston and came to LA. Wow, what a difference! I have always lived in cold climates during the winter – this is my first time being in a place with nice weather during February. Of course I’m loving it!

Boston & LA in February

Boston & LA in February

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I fractured my ankle on Nov. 1. I had to stay off it for almost 8 weeks, and I was on crutches for a while, in the midst of a snowy, icy Boston winter. By late December I managed to be able to walk without crutches, which felt wonderful.

Treacherous slush & ice when I was on crutches.

Treacherous slush & ice when I was on crutches.

I went to physical therapy twice a week from mid-December until right before I left for LA. That helped a lot. I’m still doing intense exercises every day given to me by my physical therapist. These involve things like walking on my tiptoes barefoot, stretching my ankle in four directions using a stretchy band, jumping over imaginary lines in bare feet, and the most difficult, balancing on tiptoe on my injured foot while taking my other foot off the ground (I can’t quite do it yet, only for a few seconds, holding on to a chair). I just can’t believe how much my foot and ankle has lost the ability to do normal things because of being off it for so long.

Physical therapy - ankle exercises.

Physical therapy – ankle exercises.

I really am a lot better than I was and I can walk around the neighborhood, but I’m still walking slowly, with a limp. The muscles in my calf and ankle are very tight and my ankle doesn’t have full range of motion yet. It’s frustrating sometimes to be so much better, but still feeling far from normal. I’m envious of people who can walk briskly down the street without thinking about it. I miss going for vigorous walks! I’m determined to keep exercising and hopefully after a few more weeks I will be back to normal.

Echo Park neighborhood

My new neighborhood.

My new neighborhood.

Since I don’t have a car, I chose a neighborhood where seemed like it might be possible to get by without one. So far it’s working out well! I really like Echo Park. I’ve rented a little bungalow on Airbnb and it’s in a great location. I can walk to several good coffee shops with free Wi-Fi, and to good restaurants, including an organic vegan place, cheap/good Mexican, and tasty Vietnamese that even has gluten-free vegetarian options. There is a small Mexican grocery and a regular mainstream grocery store, both within walking distance. On Friday afternoons there is a small farmer’s market, and there is also really good small “local foods” store with amazing, tasty items, both produce and packaged items. Frequent busses run locally and express to other neighborhoods, including to the LA Metro Rail. I’ll write more about public transportation later, after I’ve explored it more.

My little bungalow.

My little bungalow.

Stories Bookstore/Cafe

Stories Bookstore/Cafe

Stories - another favorite place.

Stories – another favorite place.

Chango - my favorite coffee shop.

Chango – my favorite coffee shop.

For now, everything I need is within walking distance.

My experience of Echo Park is that it’s neither too gentrified, nor too run-down. It’s a happy medium that includes diversity (I love hearing Spanish spoken everywhere… reminds me of my time in Mexico), and hipsters (the coffee shops are full of people with their noses in their computer… I’m one of them!), and cheap dollar stores (useful), a beautiful little park, a vinyl record shop, thrift stores, murals on the walls, and some cultural venues like Echo Park Film Center. It may sound weird, but in some ways it reminds me of Union Square, Somerville, where I lived from 2005-2011 –- a neighborhood in transition, with an interesting blend of old and new.

Lots of fun places in Echo Park.

Lots of fun places in Echo Park.

Echo Park Film Center.

Echo Park Film Center.

Mural

Mural

Feeling at home in your neighborhood

It strikes me that finding a neighborhood you like is possible in many different cities, and when you find that type of neighborhood, you feel at home — even though you’re in a different city. I look for neighborhoods where I can walk, bike, or take public transportation to coffee shops, bookstores, movie theaters, parks, tasty restaurants that aren’t too expensive, and cute little independent shops that sell different items from around the world.

I don’t feel at home in suburban neighborhoods with strip malls and divided highways, where you need a car to get around. I don’t mind visiting those from time to time (to make a run to Target!), but I don’t like living there.

So when you think of LA, don’t think of traffic, smog, Hollywood, the beach, extremes of rich and poor, gangs, crime, shallow people focused on appearances only, and movie stars. And when you think of Boston, don’t think of Harvard and MIT, snooty intellectuals, Boston brahmins, rabid baseball fans, crazy drivers, and thick Boston accents. All of those things exist, but everything is not like the stereotypical imaginings.

There are interesting, friendly people everywhere, in every neighborhood and city. And it’s possible to find a neighborhood that feels like “home” to you, in many different places.

I’ve heard negative comments about LA, Mexico, Omaha, and many other cool and interesting places that I’ve either lived in or visited. Many of the comments were from people who’ve never been to those places!

Take the bus.

Take the bus.

Taco trucks.

Taco trucks.

Working in the coffee shop.

Working in the coffee shop.

More on Echo Park

Why I like moving every few months

It’s fun to explore different places where I might want to live someday. It’s one thing to visit for a week on vacation, and another to live in a place for a few months. I feel so lucky that my work is online and I can do it from anywhere. I lived in Oaxaca, Mexico for five months last year, and this year I’m exploring west coast cities in the U.S.: Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle. In November I’m thinking of going to either Mexico City or Quito, Ecuador – both places have beautiful weather and I have possible options for low cost (almost free) places to stay via connections with friends! More on that later.

5

Location-flexible with an injury

On Friday November 1, in Monterey, CA, I fell and broke my ankle.

How it happened

A typical city bus in Monterey.

A typical city bus in Monterey.

I don’t know why it happened, but I stepped off a bus and somehow tripped on the steps. When I fell, my foot must have twisted under me. I waved the bus on, because I thought I just needed a minute to catch my breath and I would get up. But I could not get up at all and my ankle swelled to the size of a tangerine! Luckily, I was right in front of a motel, and the front desk worker came outside. I asked him to help me get up and he brought me into the office and called a cab for me, so I could go to the emergency room.

After they x-rayed it, the doctor told me I had a small fracture in my outer ankle bone (lateral malleolus). I would need to stay completely off my foot for 6-8 weeks! They put a Velcro splint on it, gave me a pair of crutches, pain meds, and an instruction sheet about after-care. I told the doctor I was only going to be in Monterey for 1 more week of my 4-week stay, and that after that I was headed to San Francisco for a week, then to Boston on Nov. 12. He told me to be very careful on the hills of San Francisco. When I told him there might be snow in Boston, he just shook his head.

I took a taxi home and the driver helped me get into the house. Luckily the Airbnb cottage where I was staying was on one floor, ground level, but there was a front porch with about six steps. I had never used crutches before and didn’t know how to get up steps with them. I tried hopping on one foot up the first step and that jarred my whole body so hard that it shot pain through my injured foot. So I ended up sitting down and scooting up backwards. I had to crawl through the entryway and do the same thing up one more step into the kitchen. From there I could manage to a chair in the living room, with the taxi driver’s help.

front porch steps

Getting up these steps was hard when I first arrived home from the ER!

Getting help from friends

While I was waiting in the emergency room I texted two of my best friends right away to let them know what happened. I’m so happy we live in a connected world! I was staying in Monterey by myself, but I never really felt alone. I also contacted the owner of the Airbnb cottage where I was staying to let her know what happened. She offered to get me groceries or bring me anything I would need. Nice! Luckily I had enough food for the next few days. And my friend David had already planned to drive down from San Francisco to join me for the last two days there and drive me back up to his place (where I stay when I’m in San Francisco). So he decided to come to Monterey a day earlier to help me out.

So for Saturday and Sunday I was alone. David came on Monday. I practiced with the crutches, but wow… you can’t carry anything! I had never thought about that. Also, my upper body strength doesn’t quite match my lower body weight, so it was very difficult. Eventually I realized that it would be easier to rest my left knee on a kitchen chair and drag the chair around in front of me from room to room. That way I could bring my water bottle to the bedroom, or food from the fridge to the counter to prepare it.

Re-learning everyday movements

I now have more empathy for anyone who has a mobility problem! I had to re-learn every little movement. Getting dressed, getting up from a chair – every little thing is hard when you can’t put any weight on one foot. I’m pretty good at balancing on one foot, but there is a limit to how long I can stand that way! My right hip got tired fast. Also my shoulder muscles began to hurt after the second day of lifting the wood chair with my knee on it. And my calf got sore and bruised from constant weight on it as I moved around. I tried towels, pillows, blankets, everything to make a soft surface on the chair seat… but it all felt hard as a rock after a while.

For that last week in Monterey, I spent most of my time in bed with my foot elevated on pillows, my laptop in my lap, watching movies & TV on Netflix. It hurt a lot the first two days, but much less after that. I never took the pain meds because I don’t like taking any drugs unless I absolutely have to. The pain wasn’t as bad as the migraines I get from time to time, so it wasn’t a big deal, just annoying.

I also continued working on my book project (Best Apps for Academics), for about two hours per day. I had some deadlines with my copy editor that I wanted to meet and it felt good to be working part of each day.

I was so happy when David came, because now someone could help me out with things around the house! It’s a pain when you hobble all the way from the kitchen to the bed, only to realize you forgot something and have to go back again.

bike path

Monterey has a wonderful bike path near the ocean.

My rental bike.

My rental bike.

I was very happy that I did so many fun things in Monterey before it happened (long bike rides by the ocean, lots of walks), so I didn’t feel too bad about missing out on fun during that last week. David went bike riding and walking by himself. And he used the free aquarium pass that came with the cottage. I didn’t mind, since I’ve been there before.

It’s harder to deal with being injured when you’re changing locations

When you’re recovering at home, you can get used to doing things in a certain way, based on how your house is arranged, and you can eventually find solutions to your mobility problems.

When you’re moving from place to place like I am, it takes more planning! Each place is different, with different challenges.

Normally I would stay in one place for a few months at a time, but at this time of year I had plans for more frequent movement.

Here’s the schedule I had planned:

Nov. 7 – Leave Monterey, go back to San Francisco, stay at David’s house in Bernal Heights (small house on a very steep hill).

Nov. 10-12 - Stay with friends in Oakland in a beautiful craftsman-style house with a guest room on the second floor (long staircase, beautiful hardwood floors that I was afraid to scratch by dragging a chair around).

Nov. 12 – 21 – Stay in Boston where I house-sat for friends earlier this year and now one of my best friends was doing the same. The house is a beautiful 3-story with very long staircases between the 3 floors. Bathrooms only on floors 2 and 3. Shower only on floor 3.

Nov. 21 – Dec. 23 – Stay with friends in Montpelier, VT, in the first floor guest room of a 3-story house with 2 baths and 2 kitchens. Luckily one of the baths and one of the kitchens are also on the first floor, so it would be possible to do everything without going upstairs.

The first thing I did was cancel my visit for 2 days in Oakland. I was worried about everything I would need to do to set myself up there and also worried about scratching the beautiful floors at their place! My friends were totally willing to make a bed for me on the ground floor, so I wouldn’t have to try the stairs, but it was just too much to adjust to for only 2 days.

David constructs a knee platform for me on his mom's unused walker.

David constructs a knee platform for me on his mom’s unused walker.

I was all set up in Bernal Heights with a makeshift knee carrier that David assembled by adding wood planks at knee level to his mom’s unused walker. This was for resting my knee, and was easier and lighter than dragging a chair around. It wouldn’t fit into the bathroom though, (too wide for the narrow door), so I switched to a smaller chair that I could lean on in the bathroom. I slept on a futon on the living room floor, because the guest bedroom was down some narrow stairs that would be too hard to navigate. Once I was set up there, I could do things on my own, and I realized it would be difficult to set that up in a new place for only 2 days, even if there was more room there.

All my friends were super helpful, understanding, and flexible. I paid more to keep the rental car longer (David and I were sharing, since he is also car-free), and he drove me to the airport during morning rush hour, since it wouldn’t be easy for me to take public transportation. My Oakland friends and I still got together and we had a great time catching up and discussing my time in Oaxaca.

Hands-free crutch

Hands-free crutch

Hands-free crutch


Hands-free crutch

I used one of the regular crutches with my hands-free crutch before I bought a cane.

Of course all my Facebook friends were sympathetic with lots of comments and tips. One idea was that I could get a knee scooter to drag my leg around on. I didn’t even know these existed!

So I started researching alternatives to crutches and found some interesting “hands-free crutches.” These allow you to walk up and down stairs more easily than regular crutches and make it easy to carry things. I decided to wait to get a knee scooter until after I arrived in Boston, so I wouldn’t have to check another item on the flight.

Also, my main worry was dealing with stairs, and a knee scooter is only good for moving around on the same level.

After reading various reviews, I decide to order a “hands-free crutch” as a rental for $100/month. It arrived in Monterey and David put it together for me. I was so happy to have a way to get down the porch steps and into the car! It was the first time I left the house in almost a week. You have to take it off when you sit down, so I used it to make my way to the car, then took it off and it went into the back seat.

We stopped at an Apple Store on the way to San Francisco. The Burlingame store allowed us to park very close to the front door, all on one level. (I got advice about which Apple Store between Monterey and San Francisco was closest to parking by asking the question on Yelp). I practiced with the crutch by walking from the car to the door. I wanted to see the new iPad Air, and if you know me, that’s a motivator! It was slow going, because the hands-free crutch was heavy and the straps were difficult to buckle and remove (requiring two hands). But at least it was easier than regular crutches. Having a platform to lean your knee on is great. It makes you feel almost like you are walking normally. And you can carry things! I used one of the regular crutches in one hand to stabilize myself, and later I ordered a cane from Amazon that works well for that purpose.

A better hands-free crutch: Flexleg

Practicing on Kristin's porch

Practicing on Kristin’s porch

Going down steps

Going down steps

Made it down the steps

Made it down the steps

During my research I had seen another type of hands-free crutch I liked called Flexleg. But when I tried to order it, their website kept giving errors, not allowing me to complete the transaction. So that’s why I found the other model and vendor.

I really liked the look of the Flexleg though, because it has Velcro straps – easy to remove with one hand. And it looked lighter. My current hands-free crutch was a pain to put on and remove because you needed to use two hands to attach and detach the buckles. So I called Flexleg and placed an order by phone. They gave me a discount on overnight shipping because of the problems with their website. I wanted to get it before the trial period for the first crutch ended, so I could compare and see which I liked better.

It came on a Saturday while I was in San Francisco and again David assembled it for me. It took quite a bit of adjusting to get the knee platform height right for me, but finally we got it to work. I practiced with it on Saturday when we went to a movie and on Sunday when we met my friend Kristin in Oakland. I was able to practice stairs on her front porch and also test how I would use it in handicapped restrooms by trying it out in the coffee shop where we hung out. It was easier than I expected and a lot better than the first crutch. Yay! Stairs were no longer a barrier. This was important to me because I knew that where I would be staying in Boston had giant staircases with 18 steps each (3 floors).

David helped me return the first hands-free crutch. I got a refund, since it was a free trial. I also packed up a box of stuff to mail to Boston, to make my bags lighter. I needed to include the large walking boot that they gave me at the emergency room, which is meant to be used later on when I can start to put weight on my foot. I also needed to keep the original box that the Flexleg came in, so I could return it when the rental is over.

Flying with a broken ankle

Curbside checkin with my Flexleg at SFO

Curbside checkin with my Flexleg at SFO

Luckily my Virgin America flight from San Francisco to Boston was direct. I called them to ask about my options and they reserved a wheelchair for me in the airport on both ends. I had a window seat reserved and I decided not to pay extra to change seats, but take my chances when I got to the airport. That worked out well, because the gate agent moved me to one of the best possible seats – the bulkhead row. It’s the first row of economy (they normally charge more for this row), behind a wall that separates the first-class area, and there was enough room to stretch my leg out a bit. The person in the window-seat could even get out without me needing to stand up. Lots of room. And no extra charge.

It was also a breeze going through security because they wheeled me through the back hallways to a different (and very quiet) security checkpoint for employees. I had to have the pat-down, since I couldn’t stand up with no help in the x-ray scanner. It wasn’t bad.

I was a bit worried about the swelling in my foot, since feet can swell even more during flights (and I had read scary stuff online about people getting blood clots – don’t read scary stuff online about your health!) It did swell, but not that much more and I brought a large, empty zip-lock bag and asked the flight attendant for ice to help the swelling at one point. I was somewhat restless, trying to find a comfortable position, but was able to distract myself by watching Downton Abbey on my Macbook Air. (I love that Virgin America has outlets at every seat!) I was a little worried about using the tiny restroom with my Flexleg, but I managed to make it work, and they let me use the one in first class, since it was closer. It was all easier than I expected. The 6-hour flight went quickly.

Navigating large staircases in Boston

very long staircase

These stairs scared me at first. Now I’m a pro.

When I arrived in Boston, my friend/housemate Melissa met me at the baggage claim to help with my suitcase and carry-on bag. An attendant brought me from the arrival gate in a wheelchair. My friend Jeremy drove us home. I’m so lucky to have so many great friends! Melissa made dinner for us and I told them tales of Oaxaca and Mexico City.

I managed to navigate the very large staircases with my Flexleg. Watching online videos about how to use it helped. You use your good foot first going up, and the injured leg (on the platform) first going down (you go down backwards). What made it easier is that there was a large, sturdy railing to hold on to. I used the cane to help.

Knee scooter - good for getting around on one floor.

Knee scooter – good for getting around on one floor.

So it’s now I’m living in a nice room on the second floor, same floor as a bathroom. I need to make a trek to the 3rd floor for showering and I’ve gotten used to that as well. I use a small plastic bench in the shower to rest my knee on. I can remove the splint (so I don’t have to worry about a cast to keep dry). The rented knee scooter arrived and I use it to easily move around on the second floor. It’s handy for quick trips from bedroom to bathroom and also for leaning on while getting dressed. It saves me from having to attach the Flexleg every time I want to move around. And the soft, rubber wheels don’t mark the floor at all (better than dragging a chair around, like I did in Monterey, with felt tips that tend to fall off).

At mealtimes I make the trek down the stairs to use the kitchen. Having a hands-free crutch makes it easy to prepare meals. Luckily the kitchen is small and most things are in easy reach.

Getting around in Boston and Cambridge

On Nov. 14 I had my first visit to my primary care doctor. My friend and housemate doesn’t have a car, and my other Boston friends who have cars all work during the day. Also, this house has no driveway or parking spots (since the owners, my friends, are also car-free, they rent out their two parking spots).

So I called a taxi, which usually is not a problem, but for some reason all the taxis were busy and it took about an hour and calling more than one company to get one to finally come! I called the doctor to explain and they were able to fit me in even though I was an hour late.

He did a basic checkup, sent me for x-rays, and then told me to contact the orthopedic doctor for an appointment. So I didn’t really learn anything about how my foot was doing (disappointing, since it had been two weeks and I really wanted some reassurance and advice about the healing process). I didn’t really know if it was normal to have so much swelling and bruising – (my foot was HUGE for the first two weeks), so relied on internet searches to answer my questions. My doctor was in a hurry (I even had a list of questions prepared) and didn’t have good bedside manner, he just focused on updating his records about me online.

Getting medical questions answered when away from your home state

One thing that was helpful was that my insurance (Blue Cross) has a 24-hour nurse care line. When I called them about my out-of-state emergency room visit, they told me about it. So while in Monterey I called and spoke to a nurse, which was reassuring. She told me to elevate it and ice it more. I’m glad about that service because when I called the office of the doctor who had seen me in emergency, I kept missing him and had to leave a message. The message back was to come back in to emergency (which would cost me another $100 copay, probably just to learn that I needed to elevate and ice it more!)

Apps that helped me: Hailo and Task Rabbit

Hailo iPhone app

Hailo iPhone app shows you where the nearest taxis are in real time.

Getting back to my doctor visit in Boston… I had the same problem getting a cab home when I was done with my appointment. Several cab companies said it would be at least an hour (all cabs were busy). I finally remembered that I have an iPhone app called Hailo. I had previously signed up for it and connected my credit card.

The great thing about it is that is shows you in real time on a map where the closest cabs are. When you request one, the driver gets notified and they can accept or not. Once they accept, you get a message on your phone with the driver’s cell phone number, so you can talk to them directly. So I used it and got a cab in 5 minutes!

I asked the driver some questions about it on the way home. He likes it from the driver’s point of view. The payment and the tip happen through the app, and they pay him, so no money changes hands. He also told me about a special promotion they were having, so I looked it up and got a $15 coupon to use on my next ride. Nice! Hailo is available for Android and iPhone, and is in 16 cities: Boston, Chicago, Washington DC, New York, Atlanta, Toronto, Montréal, London, Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway, Barcelona, Madrid, Tokyo, and Osaka.

taskrabbit
For my visit to the orthopedic doctor a few days later I decided I didn’t want to deal with long waits for a cab. So I used TaskRabbit to request someone to pick me up, wait with me at the hospital, and drive me home. If you’re not familiar with TaskRabbit, it’s a great way to hire local people for odd jobs. I’ve used it in the past for help with moving and bringing items to the thrift shop. This worked out really well. I got a nice young man who helped me get down the front steps, navigated my wheelchair inside the hospital and was fun to chat with while waiting.

It cost me about $50, plus $5 for his parking. That’s about the same as round trip cab fare from where I’m living in Boston’s South End to Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge. But it was a much nicer experience!

Good news from the orthopedic doctor

walking boot

My walking boot, with inflatable air pockets.

Finally on Nov. 18 I got to see a doctor who could answer my questions and tell me how it was doing. He said that the fracture was stable and low down in my outer ankle. So that meant that I could start to put a bit of weight on it. He told me to begin using the walking boot with crutches. And to stretch a bit to get my foot to go back to a 90 degree angle (it was very stiff and hard to put it down flat). Then in two weeks, come back for more x-rays, and after that start physical therapy for six weeks.

Getting around with crutches and walking boot (before it snowed).

Getting around with crutches and walking boot (before it snowed).

Difficult, but not impossible to be location-flexible with an injury

The main thing that’s been hard about all this (beside dealing with the injury itself), is moving to different people’s houses, each with different challenges.

I’m especially glad this didn’t happen earlier when I was in Mexico, Omaha, San Francisco, or the first 3 weeks of my time in Monterey (where I spoke at a conference).

Instead, it happened at a time when I already had plans to visit and stay with several of my very best friends, so I was able to get lots of help! I had to get over my own worry about being a burden on them… of course they were and are super-gracious about everything. Everyone I’ve relied on is someone I’ve been close to for years – they are family to me.

I changed a few plans: postponed all the social visits I was going to make to friends in Boston, and had some of them come visit me instead. I also decided not to spend the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas in Montpelier, Vermont, but instead to stay longer in the same place in Boston. I enjoyed a short visit to Montpelier for Thanksgiving and got a ride with one of my best friends, who joined me for the traditional vegetarian gathering (that I’ve been participating in for quite a few years).

Slowly getting better

An exercise at physical therapy - pulling a weight on a rope by bending my foot.

An exercise at physical therapy – pulling a weight on a rope by bending my foot.


As of now, I’m in the middle of a six-week plan of physical therapy and I’m able to start putting a little weight on my foot while wearing the walking boot. I’ve also learned to walk with regular crutches, go up and down stairs with them, and even walk with only one crutch! On Dec. 31 I’ll see the doctor again and hopefully the bone will have healed by then. I’m giving myself the whole month of January to heal more and get used to walking again before I leave for California. I was originally only going to stay in the New England winter for 6 weeks, but now it will be 10 weeks. I’m hoping to head to Los Angeles in early February, as long as I can walk pretty well by then.

Crutches in the snow

snowy sidewalks

On days like this I don’t go out on crutches.

We didn’t have much snow in Boston until about a week ago, and once that happened it was much harder to get around. The crutches can slide easily if the ground is wet, snowy, or icy! So on snowy days I take a cab to physical therapy. On non-snowy days I can walk with crutches to the bus stop, get up into the bus (they lower the entry), and then walk about a block to the entrance of the physical therapy location.

I found out that you can buy special tips for your crutches that help with slippery surfaces, but they are expensive! I decided not to order them because I hope to be off the crutches in a few more weeks anyway.

I’m so glad my work is online!

I’m still working on my two book projects and that’s something I can do with my laptop in bed. So I’m not missing any work – another benefit of working online.

It did take a lot of time to research, plan, order the Flexleg and the knee scooter, go to physical therapy, and think about how I would get places. But since I wasn’t doing much socially, that’s where the time came from. It didn’t impact my work much at all.

All technology is assistive technology

All tech is assistive tech.

Slide from my talk at Internet Librarian.

Ironically, during my conference talk at Internet Librarian (the reason I was in Monterey), I mentioned a really interesting article: “All technology is assistive technology.” It makes the point that we all have times of dependence and independence at different times in our lives, and even eyeglasses are assistive technology, so it’s really important to pay more attention to making all design (physical and virtual) accessible. I was mentioning it in the context of a talk about interactive book apps and showing how many of these apps benefit people with various disabilities.

Little did I know that I would soon experience a temporary disability myself! That’s part of the reason I’ve been interesting in trying all these different devices (knee scooter, hands-free crutches, cane, boot). I’m interested in all kinds of technology gadgets and I believe that everything in our world should be designed with accessibility in mind. It benefits everyone!

10 good things about having a broken ankle

1. Everyone opens doors for you.

2. Coffee shop workers bring your items to your table for you. (Luckily there are two coffee shops less than a block from where I’m living).

3. Your housemate does your laundry for you, since you can’t get down the basement stairs.

4. Your housemate picks up groceries for you. This saves money because you only get the items on your list (no last-minute temptations).

(My housemate Melissa is one of my best friends. I’m lucky to have her mothering me!)

5. You spend less money because you’re staying home more. (This helps offset the expenses of co-payments, taxis, Flexleg rental, & scooter rental).

6. Everyone tells you stories of their past injuries, so you realize you’re not alone.

7. You get more done on the books you’re writing because it takes your mind off being injured and you’re home with your laptop anyway.

8. You develop more empathy for people with permanent mobility problems. (So many out of order elevators on the Boston MBTA! Crutches in the snow & ice? Forget about it).

9. You have time to catch up on fun reading, movies on Netflix, and music playlists you made long ago.

10. You learn to be patient because it takes so long to heal. (Actually I haven’t learned that – I can’t wait to walk normally!)

Resources that helped me