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THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN

On the seventh day of 2007, there is no choice but to offer seven ways to embrace the new year.

We're not talking about resolutions to become skinnier, kinder, busier, richer or cooler.

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Broad in scope, perhaps verging on the transcendental, these are ideas for drawing inspiration from our environment, friends and families. They embrace the role played by stories and commonplace observations in enriching our own lives and the lives of others. The following suggestions aren't so much practical tips as they are contemplations for a fruitful year.

Not to worry. None of them requires self-sacrifice. Instead, each advocates the artful practice of enlightened self-interest.

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1. Smash a stereotype.

As a motorcyclist and kindergarten teacher, Ken Shapiro likes to defy what he considers simple-minded assumptions: Jews do not ride motorcycles. Men don't teach little kids.

"Whatever keyhole or pigeonhole you're in, whatever people have labeled your gender or religion or your race as, go out and break that stereotype and show people that changed image," says Shapiro, who lives in Parkville. (He is no relation to this writer.)

Even the 106-member biker club he founded, Semites on Bikes, espouses an anti-stereotypical philosophy: "No dues, no rules, no officers."

Well before he became a biker, Shapiro was busting gender roles in college. "My major was early-childhood education," says Shapiro, who teaches at Deer Park Elementary School in Owings Mills. "My chosen path was stereotype-breaking."

It's liberating to go against type, Shapiro says. "It feels good to me," he says. "It's something I've always done. I've always hated people putting me into a box and defining me."

2. Express your identity through art.

As she collaborated on a community history project in Anne Arundel County, fiber artist Joan M.E. Gaither observed the way artifacts and memories readily merged into quilts that in turn told the collective stories of their creators.

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Gaither and other residents of North County, an African-American community with a rich past, created a series of 25 story quilts. They are on display in Train, Tracks, Tarmac, an exhibition at Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis that unites North County's past with its present.

Each quilt "brings history into the limelight and those [historical] connections to the greater community," says Gaither, a teacher at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

An artistic declaration of identity doesn't have to take the form of a quilt, she says. "It could be a series of photographs or poetry. In the same way that the quilt squares form the quilt itself, [a collaborative artistic effort] could be chapters of a book, verses in a poem. It could go in any direction."

The project empowered the North County residents who participated, Gaither says. "To know you have value and that your voice and story is important" strengthens a community, she says. "It's also important to put it out there, so young folks come out there and know they are standing on the shoulders of the folks who have gone before them."

3. Get to know the place where you live (preferably on a bicycle).

On a cross-country bicycle tour, Baltimore pediatrician Ralph Brown learned a memorable lesson about the power of place. He returned to Baltimore with a new appreciation for its landmarks and cultural strongholds.

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Brown founded Monumental Bike Tours and for several years has offered spring and fall bicycle tours of the city's monuments. "They are a way of making people a little more aware of what exists in Baltimore," he says.

His tours come with well-researched history lessons. Baltimore "was a very important, very powerful 19th-century city," Brown says. But those who drive by the city's historic landmarks "never think about them," he says. "People spent so much time and energy establishing these monuments in the hope that they would send a message to future generations and help [them] realize what was important to them at the time. It's a shame that very few monuments really do grab people."

When people stop and study them, these monuments "become sort of contemplative experiences where people really think about what they mean," Brown says.

Brown also offers tours of the city's murals and bakeries, which reflect immigration history in Baltimore. He's in the early stages of designing a Jones Falls Valley tour of mill towns and someday would love to lead groups through Baltimore County's rolling farmland.

"You [feel like you can be anywhere] in so many environments and there are so many little towns with bypasses that go right around the town and you could be unaware of them," Brown says. And then there are opportunities to truly see a place like Baltimore and recognize that "this is a unique environment," he says. "That's nice."

4. Note those fleeting moments.

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The most easily overlooked occurrences in life can be the most momentous, says Victoria Legrand, who applies that credo to both her art and daily existence. She is a keyboardist, singer and lyricist with Beach House, a Baltimore-based duo with a mesmerizing sound that recently produced a CD and completed a national tour. Legrand has a couple of day jobs as well.

There's "something really miraculous about being able to observe, to take notice of the little changes, the little ebbs and flows of things that go on in people's lives," Legrand says. But they are often overlooked, "because we are constantly thinking about the future."

Legrand attributes Beach House's growing acclaim to its modest scale as well. "I feel like [recognition] has occurred because of how small [the music] was when it started; how simple it was." Instead of trying to take the music beyond their personal vision, Legrand says she and her musical partner, Alex Scally, "had faith in the sounds we were making and we tried not to be hard on ourselves. We worked to protect what we had. You have to love what you're doing. That is hard in life. There are always people like me who think too much."

5. Release your inner zaniness.

A Baltimore blogger and architect with the pen name Johnny Dollar views whimsy as a necessary part of life. And to that end, this authority on tiki culture and homemade pie offers his advice for an amusing and fulfilling new year:

"Develop your monkey style kung fu to defeat ninjas," advises Dollar, who declines to give his real name. And "Buy all the Hello Kitty things you can at Target -- there's lots!"

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He also advocates a little rebellion against politically correct society by watching "more movies where people drink and smoke at work and in public places." Dollar adds, "I'm not saying it's good, I just appreciate a world where there are less people telling you where and when to do things."

His appreciation for the good old days doesn't cancel out one of Dollar's other tips for a happy new year: "Be considerate of other people, and watch them freak out."

Above all, he urges, "Eat more pie."

6. Connect locally and globally.

"All we have to do is connect, but that seems somehow so hard," says Rory Turner, program director at the Maryland State Arts Council. "We have been living under a pall of fear for these past five years since 9/11, and even before that, the demands of our hyper-competitive global world keep us too busy and drained to make the time to reach out."

While "the call not to connect is insistent and compelling," Turner says the opportunities to connect are plentiful. "Whether it is a recreational sports league, a belly dance or hula troupe, a group of tailgaters, a school for traditional Irish music, a bicycle polo club, a pet enthusiasts society or a chorus, it is not hard to find a local group that shares our very particular interest."

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You can make connections far beyond your immediate sphere, Turner says. "We are starting to see communities of interest that span continents and oceans, and connect people in positive networks that are helping to change the world for the better."

7. Be kind to yourself.

Instead of drinking too much coffee and running on empty, it's "really important to think of food and massage and sleeping as the true fuel for your activities," says Suzanne Peranteau of Meridian Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork in Cockeysville.

"The whole society supports the idea of 'Go, go, go,'" Peranteau says. "It's a mistake to live that way. ... I built my practice on trying to teach people to nourish themselves both with massage and more gentle and energizing exercise like yoga, as well as good food and good rest."

It's not selfish to take care of yourself, Peranteau says. When you do, "what you're giving back will be of better quality."

stephanie.shapiro@baltsun.com


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