How to Ride a Tandem Without Killing Your Partner

If you’re considering buying a tandem bike or captaining for a blind stoker, here are some tips from an experienced blind cyclist.

First, let me get the terminology out of the way. The captain is the person on the front of a tandem bike, or a bicycle built for two. The person riding the back is called the stoker. The captain steers the bike, and the stoker, well, stokes. There’s not much to do from the back except pedal and be charming company for the captain. I know of some stokers who have installed the gear-shifting on the back, but this really only works well if the stoker can see what’s up ahead, or the captain has really good communication skills. I prefer to let the captain shift the gears, because he can see, and I cannot, but I do like to be warned of a gear-shift, so I can let up on the pressure on the pedals.

Riding a tandem bike has been compared to driving a limo, especially if you’ve only ridden a single bike. It takes a little more upper body strength and awareness of the time it takes to stop, start, and turn.

The most important skill you can bring to your tandem partner is good communication. Even before you get on the bike, talk to your stoker about which side of the bike you like to mount from, which foot you put down when you stop, and which way you like to let each other know you are ready to pedal.

Some people like to say, “One, two, three, go,” but I find that unnecessary and awkward. Typically, after we’re in position to start, my captain asks, “Ready?” and if I’m ready, I just say, “Ready.” And off we go. New captains, who are insecure in their ability to handle this job, often start by pushing off with a foot on the ground, much like you did when you were a kid on your first bike. This actually is a very inefficient way to start. Agree on which pedal you want in the up position for starting, and then push down on it, and immediately get your other foot in the pedal and PUSH. Doing that thing with the foot on the ground slows you down and can cause you to tip over.

If you’re captaining for a visually impaired stoker, you’ll need to announce when you’re getting ready to turn, and which way. If your stoker leans the wrong way, you could wind up in the ditch. Let her know if you need to slow down and when you’re going to stop. Say “slowing,” and “stopping,” just as you do when you ride with a group. Say “shifting,” when you need to shift gears. You don’t need to say if you’re shifting up or down.

Some stokers like to do the signaling for a turn. I like to, for two reasons. First, it makes me feel like I’m contributing something to the team effort, besides stoking. More importantly, that allows the captain to keep both hands on the handle bars.

Some captains prefer for their stokers to stay seated when they stop, while others, especially those who are not much bigger than their

stokers, prefer to have their stokers put a foot down as well.

After you’ve become comfortable with the tandem, you can enhance your blind stoker’s enjoyment of the ride by describing what you see along the way. After all, when you go for a bike ride, unless you’re a hammer-head, a big part of the experience is enjoying the scenery. Even if there’s not much to describe, you can always say, especially inOhio, “Corn fields on the left, and soy beans on the right.” I like it when my captain tells me if there are kids waving, so I can ring my bell and wave to them.

Tandem cycling is a great way to ride with someone who has a different skill level from yours. Neither one can get ahead or drop the other. It’s also a terrific way to share the joy of riding with a visually impaired person, who otherwise would never be able to ride.



Takes Two to Tandem

“So, how do you like retirement?” my friends asked me, as we pedaled down the bike path. It’s a Thursday morning. The weather is gorgeous. I’m not at my desk. I’m not on the way to work. I’m riding with some of the most wonderful people in the world. I’m on the back of a tandem bike. What’s not to like?

Because of my blindness, all my cycling is done on my tandem, which I bought in the early 90’s. It was right around that time that I joined a bike club. Many of the club members have captained for my bike at one time or another. The captain is the rider on the front, who does the steering. I’m the person on the back, called the stoker. The captains for my bike also serve as tour guides of a sort, describing the scenery as we pass. Some are better at this than others, but for me, a good describer is a bonus. I just love getting on the bike and taking off. Once, a new captain asked me, “How can you get on the back of the bike with someone you’ve never ridden with and trust them with your life?” I have to trust, or I would never get to ride. In my situation, I have to take risks, and I do, constantly. This is not to say that I’m not careful in agreeing to ride with someone. I’ve turned down offers from people who have never ridden a bike before, or who have never ridden past their neighborhoods. A good ride for me these days is at least 30 miles. Back in the day, when we all were younger, a typical ride would be 50 miles, usually on back roads through small towns, and always with a breakfast or lunch stop. We ride to eat. I rode GOBA, the Great Ohio Bike Adventure, three times, part of TOSRV twice, and El Tour De Tucson, a fund-raiser for leukemia, twice. TheTucsonride was the longest I’ve ever done, 111 miles in one day.

I am so thankful to have my cycling friends, especially those who are willing to captain for me. Being out in the fresh air, getting a good physical workout, listening to the joyful noises of the birds, smelling the distinct fragrances of the country, and feeling the sun on my face are all part of the joys of cycling. I truly enjoy riding with a group, because it’s fun to catch up on what’s been happening in their lives while getting some great exercise. Riding a tandem is not just a necessity for me, but also a great way to get to know people. I recommend it for couples. It takes real teamwork, especially for me. Ideally, my captain will warn me if we need to stop, slow down, turn right or left, or bear down for a steep incline. I had one female captain who liked for us both to stand when going up a steep hill. She taught me how to do that and not be worried when the bike swayed from side to side. Most captains prefer for one or the other of us to stand, but not both of us at the same time. It takes timing and courage. It’s important to let me know which way we’re turning, so I can lean to help the bike through the turn. Once I scared a new captain to death when I demonstrated how the stoker can actually turn the bike by leaning. I like for my captains to tell me when we’re starting an incline, so I know that the reason it’s harder to pedal is not just that my captain has quit pedaling. I’d like to have a dollar for every time someone standing in their yard and watching us pass by yells “She’s not pedaling!” They always think they’re so clever. Believe me, you can tell if your tandem partner isn’t pedaling. I have one captain who likes to tell me that we’re getting ready to go up a hill, so I’ll start working harder, so he can rest. Not really. He likes to tell people that, but he’s one of the strongest captains I have. Joining a bike club is one of the best ways to make friends and to stay in shape. I am so thankful for mine.


The Bumpy Road to Assisted Living Part3

This is part 3 of a series. Catch up on part 1 or part 2

You know how, when you go through something really unpleasant, you say, “Someday we’ll laugh about this?” That’s how my daughter Kara and I got through the first week of my mother’s transition to assisted Living. Only we often found ourselves laughing right then, because it was the only way to keep our sanity.
We got our first ironic laugh over Mother’s stubbornness about giving herself her own insulin injections. “I don’t need help with that,” she protested. This was our first battle to win. After all, this was one of the primary reasons she was in assisted living, to have her meds administered by the nurse. “I can do that myself,” Mom insisted, “And I believe you should keep doing things for yourself if you are able.” Diane, the nurse practitioner, knew just how to handle this situation.
“Tell you what,” she said. “Let’s make a deal. The nurse will bring you the insulin already drawn up, because they can see better than you can, but you can give yourself the injection.” Mom was not happy about this compromise, but she accepted it. In less than two days, she was saying to the nurse, “That’s okay. You just go ahead and give me the shot.” We had been fussing about this for months, and suddenly it was a non issue. Yay Diane!
In addition to all the annoying things to put up with, such as no communication between the people in charge and the people who actually do the work, no bath or shower in ten days, cold food, medicine not being delivered, and no type of orientation or handbook to tell us how things work around there, there was the whole issue of way too much STUFF.
With hindsight being 20/20, in preparation for the move, I should never have told Mother that she wouldn’t have to get rid of very many things. After all, she was moving from a one-bedroom apartment to a one-bedroom apartment. Had I known that there would be literally over a hundred boxes to unpack, I would have somehow found a way to get someone to help me go through her stuff, before the move. Kara and Steve both spent the better part of a week, unpacking, sorting, arranging, and disposing of THINGS. At the end of each day, Steve would take dozens of boxes of dishes, decorations, and furniture to his garage, and Kara would haul an unbelievable number of boxes of the same sort of things to my garage.
We had naively fantasized about taking a day or two to unpack. Then we would have the rest of the week, that Kara had taken away from her family, to help Mom get oriented to the rest of the building, take her out to lunch, and have tea and cookies with her, maybe encourage her to play the piano in the lobby.
But oh no. There were things to unpack, things to find a place for, things to pitch, things to give away, things to store for posterity. Each afternoon, when Kara would come back from a day of dealing with things, she would need a release of pent-up frustration over spending all this time with THINGS instead of her grandma. Sometimes, we’d take a brisk walk. Twice, we said we “needed a turtle sundae.” Near the end of the week, I poured us each a glass of wine, and Kara joked, “Are both of these for me?”
Mom did not even recognize many of the things, but she was reluctant to part with them. Having survived the Great Depression, she couldn’t throw anything away.
Through this experience, we gained the understanding that to her, THINGS make her house her home. Kara is thankful that I am not emotionally attached to THINGS. When it’s time to move me into assisted living, we’ll be done unpacking in a couple of hours, and then we’ll have that cup of tea and a really good laugh.
In a future post, I’ll describe our journey in finding a way to pay for assisted living.

The Bumpy Road to Assisted Living Part 2

Missed part 1? Catch up on what you missed.

To start my search for the perfect assisted living, I had to find a place that my mother would hate the least and that would be not too far from my house. It was going to have to be close to me, so I could get transportation for visits and monitoring her care.To add to the challenge, Mom insisted on having an apartment with a separate bedroom, and most assisted living places have studio apartments only.

My friend Eve was so kind in taking me around to seven different assisted living centers near my home. It was way above and beyond the call of friendship. She helped me take notes, took photos, and helped me work through the pros and cons of each place. They all were beginning to run together in my mind. To help me sort them out, and to assist Mom in thinking she was making the final decision, I organized my notes about each of the three that were acceptable on separate pages. Then I printed them in large print, all in the same format, so she could lay them out and compare them against one another. First came the cost, then the services offered, and finally my own opinion about each place. I felt like I had turned in a term paper. She had always been in control of everything in her life, so I wanted to give her the feeling that she would be making the choice.

The place we hated the least had a waiting list, and we simply couldn’t wait any longer, so we started the process to move into my second choice. Thus I began what I call Project Mom.

Through a website called “A Placefor Mom,” I contacted Smooth Transitions, a moving company that specializes in moving elderly people into assisted living or nursing homes. It was very expensive, but it was worth it, not having to orchestrate another move with church volunteers and friends. Meanwhile, my wonderful friend, Eve, offered to drive me to Mom’s, pack up some of her antiques, take her to a hotel that night, and then make the 5-hour drive back to my town, and get her settled into her new digs, so she could sleep there that next night. That was a huge gift from Eve. She knew that I couldn’t do it alone, and that it was going to take a lot of patience and understanding, and perfect timing to make it work. We drove to Mom’s old apartment on a Sunday, and by Monday night, she was sleeping in her own bed but in her new place.

My daughter Kara, and my son Steve also had a huge part in Project Mom. While Eve and I were transporting her fromIndianatoOhioon Monday, Kara flew in from another state in time to meet the moving truck at the new place. Steve took off work and met Kara there to direct the placement of Mom’s furniture and get enough unpacked so that when we brought her in, there would be sheets on her bed, towels in the bathroom, and a path to the couch. I felt like a project manager, adjusting timing all day to make it happen the way I had planned. And it did. The movers arrived with the truck at2:00in the afternoon, and Steve and Kara scrambled to get the place presentable by5:00, when we brought in Mom. We all breathed a sigh of relief when my mother seemed surprisingly happy with the looks of the place. That first night, Kara stayed overnight with her grandma, to make sure she didn’t get disoriented during the night. While kara worked for the next four days, unpacking countless boxes and putting away an incredible amount of stuff, Steve came over every evening after work for the next four nights and hung pictures, rearranged furniture, and unpacked books and records. Phase one of Project Mom was more or less complete. In my next posts, I’ll talk about helping Mom make the adjustment and my plans for how we’re going to pay for this.

The Bumpy Road to Assisted Living Part 1

Have you ever felt like one particular act that you have performed in your life was the defining moment when you had become an adult? Maybe it was when you bought your first car? Or drove to your first job? Or put a down payment on your first house?

As I signed the forms and agreements necessary to enroll my mother in assisted living, I felt it was the most grown-up thing I have ever had to do.

It took years of trying to convince my mother that she needed help before we finally reached this day.

“I’ll know when it’s time for me to move,” she said. “I knew when it was time for me to stop driving, didn’t I?”

Yes, we didn’t have to physically take the keys away from her, but everybody in town would give her a wide birth when they saw her behind the wheel.

“I can’t afford that,” she would protest. “If I pay all that money, then I won’t have anything left to leave to you.”

“But Mom, I’d much rather have you live in comfort in the last chapters of your life than to inherit that money. What kind of daughter do you think I am? Do you really think I would rather watch you be miserable here in this drab little HUD apartment, all alone, with no help, lonely, and vulnerable to a fall?”

“I do have help. Anna comes in every day for two hours in the morning. That’s all I need.”

“But you’ve complained many times that you are lonely. You would never have to be lonely, if you moved to assisted living.

And so on it went, nearly on a daily basis, each morning when I would call to check on her. Because I lived 300 miles away, and because of my blindness, I couldn’t easily visit her in person. At age 90, she was still living in her 6 room ranch style house, with full basement, out in the country. I made her promise back then that she wouldn’t go down the basement steps, and I was horrified when I learned that she was doing it anyway.

Over the years, we had conflicts over the steps to the basement, using the cane, using a fold-up wheelchair, subscribing to Lifeline, hiring help for cleaning, and then for bathing. It was a never-ending argument. At age 94, she relented and moved into town into a one-bedroom apartment, which was not any sort of assisted living, just a HUD apartment, because there was no such thing as assisted living in her town.

Then there were phone calls and emails from well-meaning friends who noticed a decline in her health and her growing need for help with everyday tasks, such as dressing, cooking, and paying bills. It came to a head when they reported to me that she was not aware she was neglecting her personal hygiene.

Her frame of mind was disturbing to me too. She was forgetful, often confused, and generally unhappy. Whenever there’d be a a lull in the conversation, all she could think of to say would be a complaint about somebody or other. She hated it that she had to depend on other people to take her anywhere, and she felt like she was in jail in that apartment. She would complain that nobody came to see her. However, I would get reports from others of visits from friends. She would just forget that they came. This situation had to be dealt with and soon. It was time to quit asking and start telling my 96-year old mother that she had to admit that she was old and needed assistance, and I had to do it in a way that made her think it was her idea.

My next post will be about the move, what I fondly call “Project Mom.”

Bumps on a Page

Bumps on a Page
How do you make sense of all those bumps on the page? Do blind people have extra sensitive fingertips? How people who are blind can read and write Braille is a mystery to most folks. In this post, I will explain how it works, talk about the dying skill, and dispel some myths.
Let’s start with the myths. It is commonly believed that people who are blind have better hearing and a better sense of touch than those who can see. While this may be true in individual cases, the reality is that we who use our senses of touch and hearing to replace our lost sense of sight simply focus more keenly on those senses that do work.
Anyone can learn to read Braille. It is not a language, such as American Sign Language. It is simply a method of embossing letters and numbers so people who use the sense of touch can read.
Braille is not raised letters but a combination of raised dots within a six-dot cell. Imagine a domino. Now, imagine that all the dots are missing except the top left hand dot. That’s the letter A. Now imagine all the dots are missing except the two on the top. That’s the letter C. There is a pattern used to form all the letters of the alphabet, using only six dots. There are also certain combinations that represent such words as “this,” “and,” and “the,” in addition to alphabet words. The letter b, when standing alone, represents the word “but,” and the letter t, when standing alone, represents the word “that.”
I learned to read Braille when I was 18, as my vision loss became more severe through retinitis pigmentosa, a progressive eye disease. Learning that skill really changed my life. When I went to college, I took Braille notes, both from lectures and from text books. I labeled my records and tapes in Braille.Later, when I was a homemaker, I used Braille for shopping lists and labeling food items. Now, as a Toastmaster, I use Braille notes for my speeches, and as a member of my church choir, I Braille the words to the songs, so I don’t have to memorize them. When life was simpler, before I went to work full time, I took piano lessons and taught myself to read Braille music. While I have never used Braille to read for pleasure, it has allowed me to participate in situations that require having words at my fingertips.
As technology improves for people who are blind, Braille literacy seems to be on the decline. some restaurants have Braille menus, and it is possible to get brailled utility bills and documentation from government entities. A surprising number of people who are blind are not Braille readers. What is more disturbing to me is that blind children are using their high tech note-takers and cell phones instead of Braille. High tech gismos are great. I have a few of them myself, but sometimes you just need a pencil and paper. For me, that’s the same as having bumps on a page.
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