“I’ll be sixty next week,” J.C. Keena, probably the nation’s
leading authority on bridges, said over a cup of China Black tea
the other day. “It’s very hard to believe. One of my friends told
me last week that he never thinks about things like birthdays, so
the big decade markers don’t mean anything to him. If you’re not
going to think about birthdays, especially the ones that mark the
change in decades, then I shudder to think of all the other things
that you can’t think of.
“For me, the big thing about going on is that the quality of time
itself changes. It changes in ways that are so contradictory. On
the one hand it speeds up. That’s a common¨place. Everyone talks
about how the record seems to spin faster as you get older.
Sometimes it even seems the earth is spinning faster so that the
days get shorter and shorter. You can get very dizzy.
“On the other hand, the viscosity of time can increase, so that
it’s slow and sticky as molasses. It acquires a beautiful amber
hue. It’s the wealth of memory that can bind it together like
this, slow it down and give it a rich elegaic tinge. When memories
interlace their fingers, a stray second can become palatial, much
grander even than Versailles or the Taj Mahal. We become bashful
in the face of the immensity of what we can experience.”
J.C. Keena lapsed so gracefully into silence that it took us a long
second to realize that he had stopped talking. We noticed how
large his hands were as they lay palms down in repose across the
brown fabric of the trousers that covered his thighs. We found
ourselves watching minute islands of dust floating in lazy spirals
in a sunbeam that came in the window.
“I fell in love with bridges when I was a little boy. Who can say
how we fall in love when we’re so little? We just do it the way a
frog hops into a pond. If we were amphibians, we wouldn’t need
bridges. A bridge is a way to stay in your own element while
crossing over another element. A bridge is at once a profound
concession to how things actually are and a way of radically
“When I was a little boy, it was the there and back again of
bridges that intrigued me. I built bridges across puddles. I
built bridges that spanned little rivulets after rain. I was
always building bridges. I built them out of straws, dominoes,
wood blocks, knives, spoons, forks, toothpicks. I used whatever
came to hand. When I was ten, I built a grapevine bridge that
connected two oaks on opposite banks of a creek in some woods near
my house. I built vine ladders to get up into the oaks.
“I spent happy hours up on that bridge listening to the birds and
the breeze, sometimes looking down at the rippling shining stream and sometimes looking off through the filigree of the leaves of the
trees at processions of clouds in the sky. I saw camels, buffa≠loes, elephants, rhinos, castles. I don’t think my parents ever
found out about the bridge. It was my secret. Even now, when
things get bothersome in my mind I can take myself back up on that
bridge I built when I was ten and go on watching.
“I remember the moment I decided to go to engineering school. I
was sitting in chemistry class. We had just finished doing an
experiment that involved using small amounts of butyric acid, so
there was a repulsive smell lingering in the air. Ralph J. Ober,
the teacher, was talking about colleges. I guess he was about the
age then that I am now, although at the time I wouldn’t have
believed it possible that I could ever be Ralph Ober’s age.
“He said, ‘If you want two fine schools in the East, well, I’ll
tell you, Princemouth and Darton. Yes, boy. That’s right,
mmmhhmmm. But don’t ever sell Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
down the river. No, boy. Don’t ever sell Rensselear Polytechnic
Institute down the river. Another fine school. Yes, mmmhhmmm,
“That’s when it first occurred to me to go to Rensselaer. I knew
Princeton and Dartmouth weren’t for me. I just wasn’t that kind of
person. I liked the name, ‘Rennselaer,’ and I liked the idea that
it was near a river, because where there was a river, well, there
had to be bridges there.
“Not that I thought any of this out. It’s just that every once in
a while you hear something or you see something and that something
that you hear or that something that you see just goes right in.
Once it goes in, then it’s part of you. It stakes out its claims
from inside. I don’t know if it’s really that something from
outside goes in or that something from the outside wakes something
that has been there all along inside.
“Also, I loved Ralph J. Ober. He made no sense at all. He would
say things like that all the time. I remember one time he was
describing a trip and he said, ‘We went way down in Arkansas around
Pittsburgh.’ This was the part I always paid attention to. I’d
never met anyone who talked like him. He treated chemistry as a
kind of mischief he’d learned to live with. He scrambled things up
quite unintentionally in a way that made you rethink all connections.
He was so mixed up that it gave him an oracular quality.
You could trust him as a guide because he seemed as baffled by
everything as you were.
“Only his bafflement didn’t bother him at all. Somebody would ask
him a question and he’d answer very seriously, ‘Yessssssss, but no.
That’s exactly right.’ Then he’d make a long guttural sound poised
midway between a growl and purr and he’d roll his chin down into
his jowls so that it almost completely disappeared there like a log
ducking in turbulent water. Then he’d blink a few times and look
up, once more at peace with himself, having entirely forgotten the
original question to which he’d answered, “Yesssssssss, but no.
“So Ralph J. Ober got me to the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
and I got a good education there. I had a detour into electronics,
but I never really could make friends with the idea of electrons
and charges and magnetic fields with those peculiar lines. I
always thought of it as a spectral kind of weather. When I came
back to bridges, it was with a real sense of relief, like I’d known
all along that I was meant for this, but hadn’t been ready to admit
it to myself yet.
“Now, most people who are interested in bridges want to build new
ones. They want to build bigger ones and better ones. They want
to make them tougher and stronger so that they can put them in
places that are more and more unfriendly to bridges. The idea is
always to push forward and to do something more spectacular. I did
my share of that, too. I worked, for example on the preliminary
studies for the Yah La Woo Bridge over Han Yook See gap. I admit
it was exciting and that we came up with a few new wrinkles.
“But I suppose I must have been a little bit different than many
people who work on bridge design from the start. I think this was
so for two reasons. First, I had built so many bridges as a kid.
I had built them and had the pleasure of having them all to myself.
I had really done about all the things that I could think of doing.
In a sense, I’d gotten the creative urge out of my system. I know
that makes it sound like a kind of toxin.
“Second, I love bridges. I love all bridges. So it seemed like a
natural thing to get interested in bridge maintenance and bridge
repair and also in bridge failure. Very few bridge failures are
simple matters. Usually it’s a matter of wind and water forces,
temperature, idiosyncracies of materials and particular patterns of
wear over long periods of time. Each bridge is like a living
individual. It has a character, its own distinctive pattern of
strengths and weaknesses.
“From an engineering point of view, bridge maintenance and bridge
repair are really in many ways more complicated and more sophisti≠cated problems than initial bridge design. Failures and threatened
failures are often quite abstruse. They always illustrate
limitations in design and the effects of circumstances that were
not anticipated at the time of building. Conceiving repairs and
the sequence of practical steps required to effect the repairs
often present engineering challeng¨es of the first order, especially
when you end up working in particu¨larly cramped or exposed
“My love for bridges extends to all bridges. You show me a bridge
and I have no trouble getting interested. I like to spot subtle
problems and get to the bottom of understanding both how they came
to be and what might be done to fix them. It’s almost invariably
true that the cheapest bridge is the one you already have. Every
maintenance problem is a criticism of design. I don’t mean that
there’s anything hostile in the criticism. A maintenance problem
means that a bridge has something to say to its makers. Thinking
about maintenance is the key to advancing bridge design.
“It’s also true that failures do not happen out of the blue. If
someone is watching, there are always hints in the bridge’s
behavior. The problem is that the watching has to be thorough,
scrupulous and open©minded. If you paint a bridge, find a few
cracks and daub some tar in them, that’s not maintenance. It’s
really a tragic farce. The tar didn’t help the cracks. The cracks
have something to say about the bridge, about the stresses and
strains, maybe even about harmonic vibrations in the bridge.
“That’s a feature of bridges that you rarely hear any one talk
about. Many bridges are really quite exquisite musical instruments,
played by wind and water, sounding different at different
temperatures, different surrounding atmospheric pressures and
different humidities. I take listening to bridges very literally.
There are no two that sound alike. As dolphins have distinctive
whistles, bridges have signature sounds. I have heard some of the most remarkable sounds I’ve ever heard in my life standing still
somewhere and listening to a bridge. A few times I’ve been alerted
to problems that were not previously suspected just by listening to
a bridge that I know well and noticing that its sound had changed
in a disquieting way. I suppose you could call this bridge
“I’m still fascinated by bridges and I still do a good bit of
bridge work. Incidentally, one of the few people I ever met who
shared my passion for bridges was a dental technician from Chicago
named Jerry Kowalski. I met him just before dawn one early spring
morning as I was listening to a bridge over the Mississippi with a
specially plaintive sound. It was at Cape Girardeau, a little town
about a hundred miles south of St. Louis. Jerry had driven all the
way down from Chicago in the night to be there to listen at dawn.
He said that he’d been coming down for ten years to listen to the
bridge. We got to talking about bridges and stayed there until
about eleven in the morning while the bridge swayed and creaked and
hit high harmonics as eerie as anything you can hear humpbacks do
“But I don’t do as much bridge work as I once did. Years ago,
maybe even as much as twenty years ago, we were at a party outside
in the summertime. There was a lady in a flower print dress, very
pretty, very bright. She was talking to two men. I was standing
alone about eight feet away looking off at the setting sun. Maybe I wished that I could be talking with her, too. But then I’ve
always been very shy. It’s easier for me to listen to a bridge
than to talk to a woman I don’t know, especially an attractive one.
“Anyway, I happened to hear her say with a delightful little laugh,
which yet had a deep melancholy to it, ‘Yes, I write poems, but the
only commodity more overproduced than poetry in America is zuccini
in season. What’s needed is not more poems. It’s more people to
read poems.’ It was as if this rang a bell in me. ‘Well,’ I
thought, ‘I love zuccini. I should try poetry.’ So I did. I
began reading poetry. I read all different kinds of things. I
went to second hand bookstores and bought poetry and tried to read
it and tried to understand it. Sometimes I could and sometimes I
“It’s really very hard for me to explain what kept me at it.
Because often I had no idea what was being said or suggested. Yet,
the experience of reading was so intimate. I was all alone and yet
I was not all alone. I went on reading poetry and eating zuccini.
The zuccini was no problem. I knew that I liked it. I always had.
It was easy to digest. It took me a very long time before I made
the connection between reading poetry and listening to bridges. I
found myself hearing what I read in voices that I had invented in
my own mind. I made these voices up out of sounds that I’d heard
while listening to bridges.
“No two poets are the same, any more than two bridges are the same.
Always there are the sounds of vulnerability, stress, strain,
harmonic vibrations which can, over time, fatigue the whole
structure and rip it apart. In poetry, as in bridges, there are a
thousand thousand troubles with design, the thing not working the
way it was meant to, actually moving beyond the intended meaning to
be something quite different which asks a new act of appreciation.
“I found myself becoming truly dedicated to the reading of poetry.
I enjoyed it because it was so peculiar, so idiosyncratic.
Everybody uses the same words, but to such different effect.
Again, it reminded me of bridges.
“About five years after I started to read poetry, I happened to
take a trip to Italy. I was invited there to have a look at a
number of bridges, some of which were very old. They presented
problems that were quite intriguing. I spent five weeks pondering
the different questions involved and being exasperated with my
Italian hosts who, while perfectly charming and agreeable, did not
seem to be able to come to grips at all with the issues involved in
actually repairing these bridges and keeping them in one piece.
“I had always admired Michelangelo. I took advantage of my time in
Italy to go to see a number of his works. I was awed by the
Sistine Chapel and by the sculpture, which really is transcendent.
The zuccini was excellent in Italy. I don’t know when this sentiment overtook me exactly. It was at some point during that
trip to Italy. I started to feel a great deal of sorrow for
“It occurred to me that the gentle pleasure of looking at the
statues or at the great frescoes in the Sistine chapel was
incommensurate with the pleasure of creating them. I became
attuned to the demands that the work of original creation makes on
a person like Michelan¨gelo. You might say that I became suddenly
very sensible of the pain of original creation.
“I had always been in the habit of both admiring and envying a man
like Michelangelo. Now I felt pity. By that I don’t mean a
looking down on him kind of pity, but more a feeling with him about
how little peace or repose was granted him in his life due to this
strange and poisonous gift he had of being possessed by forms that
insisted on using him as a channel to make their way out into the
“Now it occurred to me that any act of appreciation was in its own
right an act of creation, one that made a place for someone else
and someone else’s doing within oneself. Of course, this involves,
if not an expansion of oneself, then an increase in the degree of
inward articulation of oneself.
“What struck me was the gentleness of appreciation, its softness,
its peacefulness. I began to appreciate the act of appreciation.
I realized that I was not so much interested in building, in
creating, in conquering, in speaking, but in appreciating, in
repairing, in listening. I understood how my interest in bridges
and my interest in poetry went together. I understood that, both
in my work on bridge maintenance and repair and in my reading of
poetry, my solitary effort to provide an audience for the only
commodity in America that is as over-produced as zuccini,
I was groping in a concrete sort of way towards an understanding of
the role of inner acts of appreciation.
“When I look at the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, as when I
listen to a bridge, as when I read a poem, as when I watch the play
of shadow and light along a slate sidewalk in the springtime, I am
engaged in making something of myself inside myself. I do not need
to demand a recognition from outside that I can secure within. I
do not need to compete or try to dominate anyone else’s apprehension
of the world. My experience can stand within me on its own,
provided only that I am able to appreciate it both for its
connection with me and its connection with what surrounds me.
Again, I am back, if not at bridges, than at bridging.
“I have developed, even, a sense of gratititude that I am not
burdened with any excess of creative urge. Most new bridge design
strikes me as, if daring, quite uninformed and, probably, premature. I question whether we should try to put larger bridges wherever they seem to suit our current convenience or whether we should not become concerned with redesigning the patterns of our movements to fit the shape, terrain and climate of the earth we inhabit. For all the poetry I have read, I have never been tempted to write a poem. I have never had any urge to paint,
although from time to time, I have made a few sketches of pieces of
bridges that showed particularly interesting patterns of cracks or
“A certain immunity, if not from the creative urge, then from the
urge to outward and concrete expressions of the creative urge,
leaves one much freer for the inner work of appreciation, whose
results show only in the process of one’s own living, not in any
outward program of particular productions. My interest in bridges
seems to me to have helped me, if not to build a bridge towards an
inner realm, then at least to find and repair and then maintain a
bridge that was already there to an inner realm of intimate
J.C. Keena stopped and folded his hands. A cloud came over his
features. He seemed to struggle for a few seconds and then sighed.
“I always feel so clumsy talking about this kind of thing. You
know, I rarely do it. It’s not the kind of experience that you can
express. In fact, appreciation is bound, so far as I can tell, tobe shy and reclusive. Along with so many other kinds of soothing,
it is always off at the margin, camouflaged in dapple and doubt,
waiting quietly without any need to be noticed. Yet, I did decide
to talk with you a little bit about my life, or at least this
aspect of it, because I felt that a certain deep ingratitude would
have been involved in my insisting on preserving a relatively
luxurious privacy at the expense of frustrating others’ appreciation of appreciation.
“Appreciation, I might say, is the opposite of inflation. It is a
very slight thing, to try to give what one experiences and what
finds one its due. Appreciation is a kind of bridge made out of
the most subtle materials. Or should I say that it is made out of
the most subtle immaterials? Where it leads can not be specified,
either beforehand or in the process. It spans the chasm between
the specific and the general. It changes your relationship not
just to things outside yourself, but to your own style of experiencing.
It is not a matter of anything you can hold on to. That’s
why talking about it always seems so odd.”
J.C. Keena smiled the most quizzical, whistful, doubting smile we
had ever seen. We noticed at once how strangely sad and how close
to him we felt.
“Come with me,” he asked, getting up. “I want you to see my
“We strolled out through the back of the house with J.C. Keena, who
had picked up a large white plastic bag. He proceeded to fill this
with zuccini for us, so that when we left, we left with our arms