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Facing a door to the future

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One morning this July, a message appeared on a blogger's Web site describing a brownstone building in Brooklyn with its doorway painted white. Since the house is in an area that New York City's Landmark Preservation Commission has designated historic, this is a no-no because colors other than brown are against the rules. Then a photo was added with a headline decrying the "Illegal Paint Job."

But what happened next really made things interesting. People started sending comments to the website which, for the most part, expressed indignation at such an outrage. Not just a few, but hundreds. While some cautious folks simply wondered whether the white paint wasn't just a primer, others jousted back and forth about questions of neighborhood property values versus the rights of the individual. The white doorway was called everything from a shame to a mortal sin to a crime.

However, it wasn't until the next day when Michael Daly, a columnist for the New York Daily News, knocked on the door of this home, the center of so much angst, that anyone actually asked the owner what was going on. It turns out that the white paint was indeed a primer and, within hours, a contractor had added a coat of basic brown.

The 82-year-old owner who's lived there for three decades didn't know anything about the flurry of Web postings concerning his home. When Daly asked him why he thought an essentially simple issue got so overblown, the man said, "They have no answer for the real problems."

I think he had a point. Certainly, all of us need to respect laws as well as local ordinances and regulations. And there's no denying that even small concerns deserve consideration if they affect a community. Still, a lot of people were doing a great deal of highly emotional venting about a problem that just doesn't rank too high on the scale of human crises. A few of the comments support this idea. When one said, "This is a disgrace," it was followed by another that countered, saying "no" - war, lack of affordable health care and dependence on foreign oil were a disgrace. This was "just someone painting their house white." Another message mentioned AIDS, human trafficking and ethnic cleansing as issues that should be of far greater concern to people.

The trouble is that we know that these and many more life-and-death issues are "the real problems." And they have a way of making us feel helpless. No one can single-handedly solve any of them. But that doesn't mean we can't do something to make a bad situation better. So let's forget about paint. We can start by educating ourselves, by getting involved in an organization that tackles an important issue, by letting legislators and other government officials know where we stand. We can help by donating our time and our money to making a difference to someone, somewhere.

When I'm feeling overwhelmed, I remember the words of writer James Baldwin: "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced."

And maybe the first thing we should face is a neighbor's door, when we knock to say, "Hello." That seems to me like a pretty good place to start to change the world.

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Dennis Heaney is president of The Christophers.

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For a free copy of the Christopher News Note, "Your Good Example Makes a Difference," write: The Christophers, 12 East 48th St., New York, N.Y. , 10017; or e-mail: mail@christophers.org.

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