Grace over spite

Two goals, plus a prediction, a fight, a fence, a metaphor, and some hope. Also, 7 other things worth your time. Oh, and a minor technical update that about 5 percent of readers will appreciate.

I stumbled across a real-life metaphor for something important. But I’m going to do the exact opposite of what my college English 101 professor, the late Ann Spector, would have advised: I’m going to explain its meaning first, before I even share it.

Don't worry. I think this will work.

As you might imagine, I spend a lot of time thinking about the future of Understandably.com.

Many of you know me from my days launching and writing the “Inc. This Morning” email newsletter. I love Inc.com. I’ve read the magazine for more than 20 years. I have some good friends there, and I still write for their website.

But, I launched this independent brand because I wanted to do something different—something I couldn't have articulated very well six months ago.

That's OK. To quote myself: “I write what I’ve learned, so I can learn what I think."

Now, I’m figuring it out. Writing my mission statement and core values helped, as did the very fortunate decision to have bought the highly appropriate domain name, Understandably.com, a while back.

Here are the two things I want to do:

  1. I want to build a fair, trustworthy, facts-first conduit of news and information. Ultimately, I think there will be more than just an email newsletter—a series of different genres and media. But the key is that while people have their biases (and I'm no different) I've learned to try to get out of the way, and hopefully let facts speak for themselves.

  2. I want to built a product that helps people understand one another. They don't have to agree; in fact, it's probably more important when they don't agree at all. But as human beings, we need to work on empathy, so we can all at least learn to communicate better.

Especially on Goal #2, I think we all feel it. The stakes right now are through the roof. It can seem like a dark, untrusting time out there. But, wait—let me add just one more twist.

It’s that I'm actually pretty optimistic about how all of this plays out. You know that famous John Maynard Keynes quote? “In the long run, we'll all be dead.”

I try to keep my mind on a much more hopeful version, which is basically: “In the long run, we'll all be OK.”

It probably betrays my Generation X roots to envision it this way—but I find hope in the near-certainty that American high school students 20 years from now will study the Covid-19 era—and they’ll be bored out of their skulls, because it bears no resemblance to the calm, prosperous, cooperative country they live in.

All of which brings me to the metaphor I came across.

It's a true story from history. I guess I'll have to tell it quickly now, since the buildup has taken so long.

It begins in 1846, when a German immigrant named Nicholas Yung, having made his way to California and built a successful funeral home (they'll always be in demand!), constructed a “quaint, cottage-style home” with a beautiful view in what is now the Nob Hill area of San Francisco.

All was well for quite some time. But, in 1876 a railroad baron named Charles Crocker decided he wanted to buy the entirety of Nob Hill for himself.

He built a 12,000-square foot mansion, bought out his neighbors—and then reached an impasse with Yung, who considered Crocker’s buyout offer to be a lowball.

They were at loggerheads. Animosity ensued. Neither man covered himself with glory. Crocker—who by now owned literally all of the other properties abutting Yung's property—responded by building a 40-foot “spite fence” around Yung's house.

It spoiled the view. It blocked out the sun. It destroyed Yung's garden, and his family was forced to light their home by candle at high noon.

It wasn’t green like in this contemporary photo. That’s for emphasis. But it towered above everything.

Still, Yung refused to sell.

Word spread. The monstrosity became a tourist attraction. Still, Yung refused to sell.

Yung died, in 1888. Then, his widow refused to sell.

Mrs. Yung died in 1902, and finally, Yung's daughters sold out two years later. The “spite fence” was torn down in 1905.

Reader, do you remember what happened one year later, in 1906?

The San Francisco earthquake. It devastated the city, and destroyed both Crocker's mansion and Yung's little cottage.

“Rather than rebuild,” as writer Jake Rossen put it, “the family decided to donate the block to charity.”

What stands there today? Grace Cathedral, the cathedral church of the Episcopal Diocese of California.

It's a beautiful church. I don't think you have to be Episcopalian—or even religious, for that matter—to appreciate it. Or, to appreciate the true-life metaphor.

Literally, my friends: Grace over spite. And all after an expensive, decades-long fight that wound up signifying absolutely nothing.

Hey, here’s an idea. Wouldn't it be nice if we could find a way to skip the spite?

Got comments?

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7 other things worth your time

  • Lots going on today, but at the smart suggestion of a reader I want to acknowledge that yesterday marked the 200th birthday of Florence Nightingale, and thus International Nurses’ Day (alternatively, the last day of International Nurses’s Week). This year, of all years, nurses deserve the credit. (CTV)

  • The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in two cases over whether organizations that have President Trump’s tax returns can be forced to turn them over to Congress and prosecutors. Reading tea leaves, most observers seem to anticipate a mixed decision that will make almost nobody happy. (Bloomberg Law)

  • Work for Twitter? CEO Jack Dorsey says with very few exceptions, you can work from home forever. (NBC News)

  • Next up for a bludgeoning in the Covid-related housing crisis: Small landlords whose tenants can't pay. (Bloomberg)

  • It was fascinating to watch how people reported Dr. Anthony Fauci's Senate testimony Tuesday, convinced either that he'd said it was unlikely that schools could open this fall, or else that he'd said the exact opposite—and that they're actually very likely to be open. I think the most honest interpretation is this one: "no clear answers." But then, it's only May. (US News)

  • Tesla isn’t just reopening; it’s saying California workers who don’t return to its plan, even in violation of law, will be placed on unpaid leave and thus unlikely to be eligible for unemployment benefits. (The Guardian)

  • In another era, I might have led with this. But we’ll be sure to watch it anyway: Disney Plus announced it will offer Hamilton this July 3, a full year ahead of the previous plan. (Variety)

A small housekeeping improvement

You know those little stars at the end of each newsletter that let readers offer one-click feedback and send me an optional message? I'm proud of coming up with that idea, but there were two issues.

  1. It took about six steps for me to actually access and read the messages, so I'd fall way behind in replying.

  2. The form said you didn't need to include an email address, but 30% of the time, it still didn’t work unless you included one. I could never figure that out.

Anyway, I finally ditched the service I was using and recreated the whole thing using Google Forms. It seems to work better, and it's free, so that's an added bonus. Give it a try, and let me know if you have any issues.


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