Tag Archives: Family

A first lady who followed her own path more than precedent

When Michelle Obama considered the daunting prospect of becoming first lady, she avoided turning to books by her predecessors for guidance.

Instead, she turned inward.

“I didn’t want to be influenced by how they defined the role,” Mrs. Obama once said. She instinctively knew she had to define the job “very uniquely and specifically to me and who I was.”

That meant doing it her way: shaping the role around her family, specifically her two young daughters, and not letting her new responsibilities consume her.

Throughout her eight years, Mrs. Obama has been a powerful, if somewhat enigmatic, force in her husband’s White House. She chose her moments in the often unforgiving spotlight with great care and resisted pressure to become more engaged in the mudslinging of partisan politics.

At times, she’s been more traditional than some expected — or wanted from this first lady. At other times, she’s been eager to update stuffy conventions associated with the office.

As she navigated her way through, the woman who grew up on the South Side of Chicago discovered a talent for television and a comfort with Hollywood A-listers, haute couture and social media. And she used all of those elements to promote her causes — childhood obesity, support for military families, girls’ education — with at least some success.

When she leaves the White House next month just a few days after celebrating her 53rd birthday, Mrs. Obama will do so not just as a political figure, but as a luminary with international influence.

Friends say she charted that path largely on her own.

“What she did was she sort of listened to herself and allowed her own inner voice and strength and direction to lead her in the way that felt most authentic to her,” Oprah Winfrey told The Associated Press. “And I think watching somebody makes you want to do that for yourself.”

Let’s Move

Mrs. Obama grappled with the childhood obesity issue before becoming first lady; a doctor had warned her about her daughters’ weight.

At the White House, she decided to share her experience with the country and started by planting the first vegetable garden there in more than 60 years. That led the following year, in 2010, to the launch of her anti-childhood-obesity initiative, “Let’s Move.”

The first lady appealed to elected officials, food makers, sellers, restaurant chains and others to try to make healthy food more accessible. She lobbied lawmakers to add more fruit, vegetables and whole grains, and limit fat, sugar and sodium in the federal school lunch program.

That led to the first update to the program in decades, and for Mrs. Obama the process was akin to a crash course in Washington sausage-making. Mrs. Obama’s effort was not universally welcomed. Republicans in Congress wanted to reverse the rules. Others said Mrs. Obama was acting like the “food police.” Even the kids she wanted to help added to the backlash. Some students posted photos of lunches they found unappealing on Twitter with the hashtag (hash)ThanksMichelleObama, or simply tossed the food into the trash.

Mrs. Obama had won. But she would never again try to work closely with Congress on an issue. She chose instead to use her platform to press industry to change its ways.

It’s too early to know how Mrs. Obama’s efforts may affect childhood obesity rates long term, but advocates believe she helped change the national dialogue around healthy eating. And although incoming Republican President Donald Trump, a proud patron of McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken, has yet to comment on school meal regulations, advocates worry about the fate of Mrs. Obama’s effort under a White House and Congress that will be controlled by the GOP.

Reflecting on her childhood obesity work, Mrs. Obama said some people initially wondered why she would bother with such a “softball issue” but “now, all those challenges and criticisms are off the table.” She told talk-show host Rachael Ray that “at least we’ve become very aware as a society that this is one of our most important health issues.”

Mrs. Obama’s push to put the country on a health kick extended to exercise — and she made herself exhibit A.

To promote “Let’s Move,” the first lady often donned athletic wear and ran around with kids at sports clinics, some on the South Lawn. She twirled a hula hoop around her waist 142 times and kick-boxed in a video of the gym workout that helped tone the upper arms she showed off regularly, as in her official White House photo.

She did pushups with Ellen DeGeneres, raced in a potato sack against late-night TV’s Jimmy Fallon in the East Room and shimmied with a turnip in a brief video popular on social media — all to show that exercise can be fun.

“I’m pretty much willing to make a complete fool of myself to get our kids moving,” she once said.

Instead of going the fool’s route, Mrs. Obama turned herself into a fitness guru and a figure significantly more popular than her husband.

A role not imagined

First lady was never a position Mrs. Obama imagined for herself, given her modest upbringing, her distaste for politics and having never seen her skin color on a U.S. president and first lady.

Her early aversion to politics developed while watching her father navigate Chicago politics for his job with the city water department, and was reinforced by her husband’s pursuit of a political career. Both Obamas have said his political ambition had strained their marriage and family.

Once in the White House, Mrs. Obama vowed to protect her then 10- and 7-year-old daughters’ right to a normal childhood. She declared being “mom in chief” to Malia and Sasha as her priority, irking women who hoped the first lady might be less constrained by stereotypes.

She showed few signs of trying to push those boundaries.

Mrs. Obama was an enthusiastic White House hostess. She rarely spoke about issues that were outside of her portfolio. She crafted her public schedule around her daughters’ activities and limited her travel so she could spend time with them.

The Obamas’ parenting style — often described by both Obamas as warm, but strict — made them role models on that front, a point of pride, particularly in the African-American community.

“We have heard no Obama children drama,” said Ingrid Saunders Jones, national chairwoman of the National Council of Negro Women.

Mrs. Obama didn’t really begin to open up about the historic nature of her service as the first black woman to become first lady until the end of the presidency was in sight. She mostly addressed the subject in interviews when she was asked to reflect about it, and discussed how important it was for children to see a black president and first lady.

Longtime friend and White House adviser Valerie Jarrett said Mrs. Obama was often reluctant to talk about such matters earlier because she wanted her legacy to be more than just her place in history.

“Her goal is not what she is, but what she does,” Jarrett said.

One last campaign

In the final weeks of the presidential race, Mrs. Obama set aside her distaste for politics to wage one last campaign, an ultimately futile attempt to help elect Democrat Hillary Clinton. She quickly became one of most passionate Democratic voices opposing Trump and calling him out for “bragging about sexually assaulting women” in comments caught on a 2005 video.

“I know it’s a campaign, but this isn’t about politics,” she said at a Clinton rally shown live on cable TV news, rare exposure for a first lady in a campaign. If Trump’s past words are “painful to us as grown women,” she asked, “what do you think this is doing to our children?”

It was yet another moment when Mrs. Obama again seemed to be following her path rather than precedent.


That New Hampshire speech…

Refugee debate hits home for Hmong family in Appleton

Pang and Chia Lee Xiong, among the first Hmong refugees to be settled in the Fox Cities as they fled their war-torn homeland nearly four decades ago, cannot read or write.

But their nine children? They all hold college degrees — a doctor, a nurse and teachers among them — and they say they’re a family that stands as a shining example of refugees finding a better tomorrow, a story that resonates amid today’s often heated debates regarding refugees and immigration in the United States.

Eight of those nine children came home recently to celebrate their parents, who despite their own limited education hammered home over and over again the message that education and hard work can still make the American dream a reality.

With their own children in tow, they flooded into St. Pius X Catholic Church on a Wednesday afternoon to surprise their father, who at age 70 was retiring after 38 years as a custodian in Appleton Catholic schools.

Up until two years ago, Pang Lee Xiong held two full-time custodial jobs, often working 16 hours a day.

“My mom and dad are both hard workers,” daughter Kathy Xiong said. “They’ve always talked about taking pride in who we are, honoring our heritage and our ancestors; but at the same time making sure that we do what we can to be a value to others in our community, and that we’re giving to our community.”

Neither Pang, nor his wife, Chia, received an education, but they could work and did so tirelessly to ensure their two sons and seven daughters would have a path to success.

It took hard work but also patience and endurance after arriving in Appleton as outsiders, family members said. Their experiences provide a glance into how Appleton has evolved since the first of the Hmong refugees arrived here in the late 1970s.

Yet as some things change, others remain the same.

The Xiongs’ celebration unfolded as refugee resettlement remains a hot-button political issue.

The Fox Cities, to the delight of some and disdain of others, has had mostly open arms for refugees.

In recent years, hundreds afforded refugee status have arrived from a number of nations including Somalia, Iraq, Burma, Cuba and the Congo.

The last major Hmong resettlement in the Fox Valley came in 2004.

Community leaders said those wary of the vulnerable arriving can look to this Appleton family as an example of the great things that can happen when rolling out the welcome mat.

Refugees arrive with a mind on building better lives, Appleton Mayor Tim Hanna said.

“There’s such a passion, and they’re fighting for their families,” he said.

Pang held his composure as 20 of his 28 grandchildren streamed into the room and waited their turns for hugs and kisses. He finally broke into tears when asked to muster up a few words about retirement and his long hours of janitorial work.

“I knew that I had to support my kids,” he said.

His son, Bon Xiong, said it’s difficult to comprehend his father’s efforts working two full-time jobs.

“I couldn’t do it,” he said. “I’ve thought about it, but I couldn’t do it.”

The Xiongs were just the third Hmong family to settle in Appleton after arriving from a refugee camp in September 1978.

Today, it’s Syrian refugees who are drawing the greatest debate, though contemporary wrangling over whether or how much we should support helps explain what the Xiong family faced in their early years here.

A 2015 Gallup poll found 60 percent disapproval for bringing 10,000 Syrian refugees into the United States. In 1979, the polling organization found 57 percent disapproval for taking in refugees from Southeast Asia.

“I remember the talk around town being skeptical,” Hanna said of the late 1970s.

Pang had fought on behalf of the CIA during the secret war in Laos, and he and his family were forced to flee to avoid persecution and likely death.

The family made its way through three refugee camps before arriving in America. They were sponsored by St. Mary Parish, and its leaders and parishioners taught the family how to live here — right down to the simple things such as trips to the grocery store.

Their children attended Catholic schools. Pang began his custodial duties within days of settling into his new environment.

Daughter ThaoMee Xiong remembered being riled up by the prejudiced words she’d hear from her classmates. She said her father, a janitor at her school, let it roll off his shoulders and encouraged her to brush it off as well.

“He never took that personally, although it probably doesn’t feel good as a grown man being taunted by young boys,” she said.

Today, about 4,700 Hmong residents call the Fox Cities home. Back then, Pang, Chia and their children stood out.

Bon Xiong said he’s long past any hard feelings, knowing much of the poor treatment they received was born of resentment from the Vietnam War, and the Korean conflict before it. He said he is proud to see that as the Hmong population grew, so did acceptance.

In 1997, he was elected to the Appleton Common Council, and the following year became an Outagamie County Board supervisor. He was the first Hmong American in either of those roles in Wisconsin.

“There was a lot of prejudice,” he said. “Prejudice out in the streets, in the schools — a lot of name calling. I couldn’t really comprehend it. But as time went by, all of that kind of just disappeared. The diversity here in Appleton now — it’s awesome.”

Daughter Anne Vang-Lo said the messages she and her siblings received from their parents were simple, repetitive and carried big expectations — all based on their refugee struggles.

“Coming to America, my mom and dad always said, ‘Make sure you go to school, make sure you go to school. Make sure you work hard, make sure you work hard.””

Now that Pang has retired, he and Chia will move to Minnesota to be closer to many of their children and grandchildren.

Despite all of the uncertainty that existed when the family first settled here, Pang is now a bit overwhelmed by the prospect of leaving, ThaoMee said. Appleton has become home.

Hanna issued a proclamation that declared Wednesday Pang Lee Xiong Day in Appleton, noting his “tenacity to survive the trauma of war and displacement and the audacity to encourage his children to reach and obtain the American dream.”

Today, new families continue to arrive and take the first steps on that path, often with similar challenges.

Jean Long Manteufel, a member of the Appleton Fox Cities Kiwanis Club, said she’s been impressed by the response of the Fox Cities as new neighbors arrive. She took part in community collections to set up homes for hundreds of Hmong refugees in 2004, and again for the new wave of refugees in 2014.

Some communities reject them.

“I was so proud of the Fox Cities that our choice was, ‘Let’s help them,”” Manteufel said.

It’s never been a greater issue, and the rhetoric has remained heated.

A June report from the United Nations said 65.3 million people were displaced from their homes either from war or persecution at the end of 2015. That was up from 59.5 million the year before.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has pointed to Syrian resettlement as a national security issue. Last year, Gov. Scott Walker was among 15 governors who asked the federal government not to place Syrian refugees in their states after attacks from the Islamic State in Paris.

Manteufel suggests we judge people on their individual merits rather than place of origin.

Kathy Xiong has full confidence that refugees arriving to skepticism today can ultimately make their communities stronger, just as her family has done.

“He really had to leave to make sure he was safe and my family was safe,” she said of her father. “But we’ve given back in so many ways.”

An AP member exchange.

By sharing painkillers, friends and family can fuel opioid epidemic

As lawmakers grapple with how best to combat the nation’s prescription drug abuse crisis, a recent survey is shedding light on how patients who get these painkillers  — drugs such as OxyContin, methadone or Vicodin — sometimes share or mishandle them.

According to findings detailed in a research letter published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine, about one in five people who were prescribed the highly addictive drugs reported having shared their meds with a friend, often to help the other person manage pain. Most people with a prescription either had or expected to have extra pills left after finishing treatment. And almost 50 percent didn’t know how to safely get rid of the drugs left over after their treatment was complete, or how to store them while going through treatment.

The study’s authors suggested that the results point to changes doctors could make in prescribing practices and counseling to help alleviate the problems.

“We’ve all been saying leftover medications are an issue,” said Wilson Compton, deputy director of the federal National Institute on Drug Abuse, who wasn’t involved with the study. “Now I have a number that is concerning.”

The survey was sent to a random sample of almost 5,000 people in 2015. Of the recipients, about 1,000 had used prescription painkillers in the past year. Almost all of the people in this group responded to the survey.

Public concerns about painkiller abuse are growing louder. About 2 million people were addicted to prescription opioids in 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overdoses kill 44 people per day, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates. Researchers say deaths in 2014 were almost four times as common as they were in 2000.

“There’s a growing awareness among medical advisers, policymakers and even members of the general public that these are medications that can do serious harm,” said Colleen Barry, one of the study’s authors. She is a professor of health policy at Johns Hopkins University and co-director of the university’s Center for Mental Health and Addiction Policy Research.

And it is not news that most people who use prescription painkillers for nonmedical reasons often get them through social channels rather than a physician. In 2013 — the most recent year for which this data is available — the National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimated that number to be more than 80 percent.

But this paper’s findings illustrate some of the forces behind drug-sharing, Barry said, and in turn indicate how to stop it. For instance, the authors recommend that doctors prescribe smaller amounts of drugs, to minimize leftovers that could be shared or stolen. That tracks with new opioid prescribing guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We probably prescribe a little bit more than we need to, and it’s not like people throw these away afterward. The leftovers are something we’re not thinking about,” said Jonathan Chen, an instructor at Stanford University School of Medicine, who has researched opioid abuse. Chen, who was not involved in the study, is also a practicing physician.

Meanwhile, it’s still tough for people to get rid of the drugs when they finish with them, and few say they know about safe storage practices. That’s another avenue for prevention.

Most respondents, for instance, didn’t lock up the pills when storing them. That makes it easier for someone else to take them.

And the prevalence of sharing medications suggests consumers need to be better educated about how addictive prescription opioids are, Barry said.

Doctors, added NIDA’s Compton, also need to understand the risk that, when they prescribe pills, they could end up used by someone else.

“One out of five people that I write a prescription to for opioids may share those with someone else. That’s a lot of people,” he said.

Physicians, meanwhile, haven’t historically been trained to counsel patients on safe drug disposal, meaning patients are often left unaware. Just under a quarter of respondents reported they remembered learning from the doctor or nurse about how to get rid of their meds safely. Chen said he couldn’t recall ever going over disposal practices with a patient. Even if he did, he said, it’s hard to know if patients would remember that information.

And when they are informed, it’s still difficult for consumers to easily get rid of pills they no longer need. The federal Drug Enforcement Administration sponsors “drug take-back days” twice a year. Some local law enforcement agencies hold similar events. But such events are often sporadic enough that it’s hard to make them a real habit, Barry noted.

Making those practices easier is essential, Barry said. And changing the culture around those drugs is key, so people understand the risk.

“Just the realization on the part of the public as well as physicians that these medications are not like Tylenol — these are highly addictive meds,” she said. “That message is starting to get out there.”

Published under a Creative Commons License courtesy of Kaiser Health News, a national health policy news service that is part of the nonpartisan Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

‘Old Yeller’ named all-time family favorite

And the Pawscar goes to…

The nearly 60-year-old classic “Old Yeller” has been named American Humane Association’s all-time favorite family movie as part of this year’s Pawscar awards, announced just days before the human Oscars.

The AHA monitors and protects more than 100,000 animals working in 1,000 productions each year. The organization traditionally adds three all-time favorites to its list of all-time favorite animal-inclusive films during the Pawscars.

AHA officials say 1957’s “Old Yeller” was one of the first movies to ever focus on the human-animal bond.

Competing against Disney’s “Old Yeller” in national online voting was “Dolphin Tale,” “Babe,” “Beethoven” and “Homeward Bound.”

The Pawscar awards show can be seen online at www.americanhumane.org. 

Atlanta couple says someone stole their food truck

An Atlanta family says its dreams of running its own business were ruined when someone stole its food truck.

The victims told WSB-TV someone stole their Brazilian Taste Truck Dec. 21 in front of the dance studio where family member Muriel Ribiero teaches martial arts. Ribiero and his wife, Maria Marques, say they had spent nearly $20,000 turning a trailer into a food truck, and were nearly ready to put it in business when it was stolen.

He says he had parked the truck in front of the dance studio for two months while he worked on painting it and building the kitchen.

When Atlanta police responded they were unable to find any surveillance video to help them find who stole the food truck.

‘45 Years’ a devastating time bomb

How many great movies could be written across the enigmatic, profound face of Charlotte Rampling? Hundreds? Thousands? At any rate, Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years” is one of them.

In it, Rampling stars as half of a childless couple — Kate and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) Mercer — preparing to celebrate their 45th anniversary. In minutes, we can already feel jealousy welling in us from snapshots of their peaceful, harmonious lives in rural England: dog walks, drinking tea and taking leisurely trips into town.

That such appearances of elderly tranquility are not what they seem is one of the notions upended by “45 Years.” A letter arrives for Geoff with startling news that the frozen body of the woman he dated before meeting Kate has been found in a Swiss glacier where she died in an accident while traveling with Geoff more than 50 years ago. “Like something in the freezer,” mumbles an astonished Geoff.

“She’d look like what she did in 1962,” he says. “And I look like this.”

The news unsettles Geoff, transporting him back to his mid-20s self, unmooring an iceberg of the past. Confessions follow, revealing a deeper history than Kate was before aware. She watches with increasing alarm as her husband begins smoking again and rummaging around the attic late at night for pictures of his old flame. Their previously rock-solid relationship is suddenly beset with fissures and tremors erupted by a history that isn’t so ancient, after all.

Haigh, who is 42, has made the HBO series “Looking” and the excellent independent film “Weekend.” That movie dealt with two gay men whose one-night stand is extended across a weekend, during which a remarkable intimacy accumulates as they examine their night together and contemplate their connection.

For Haigh, relationships are forged in a moment, crystalized in the circumstances of their beginnings. Kate and Geoff may be in their 70s, but their marriage is still built upon — and haunted by — whatever brought them together in their 20s. Old age has done far less to change them than most would think.

The devastating power of “45 Years,” which Haigh adapted from David Constantine’s short story “In Another Country,” lies in the director’s sensitive understanding of relationships: of the conversations that take place over pillows and the quiet contemplation of fates abandoned in marriage.

But it’s Haigh’s tremendous lead actors that make the movie. They’re a convincing couple: Courtenay is absent-minded and untidy; Rampling is cool and controlled. As Kate sees a new rival to her husband rise from the dead, the anxieties and confusions flicker across Rampling’s face. Turmoil stirs beneath her chilly stillness.

If going to see “45 Years” (and you should), choose your date wisely. After the film’s haunting final shot, you’re likely to be exiting the theater wondering just how well you really know the companion next to you. 


Iron Lady is auction gold: Thatcher items fetch high prices

The Iron Lady is auction gold.

Speeches, books and outfits belonging to late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher — including her wedding dress — have soared above their estimated prices at a London auction.

Thatcher’s red prime ministerial dispatch box sparked a bidding war and sold for $365,000.

A signed copy of the speech Thatcher made on becoming Britain’s first female prime minister in May 1979 — declaring “Where there is discord may we bring harmony” — sold for $56,460.

The blue velvet dress she wore to her 1951 wedding sold for $38,000 and her copy of the collected works of Winston Churchill fetched $49,000, 10 times its pre-sale estimate.

Branded the “Iron Lady” for her steely determination, Thatcher governed Britain between 1979 and 1990, transforming the country with her free-market policies.

She died in April 2013, aged 87, and the collection is being sold by her family — though some commentators felt the collection of power suits and iconic handbags should go to a museum.

Supreme Court will hear first abortion case since 2007

The Supreme Court is giving an election-year hearing to a dispute over state regulation of abortion clinics in the court’s first abortion case in eight years.

The justices will hear arguments, probably in March, over a Texas law that would leave only about 10 abortion clinics open across the state. A decision should come by late June, four months before the presidential election.

The issue split the court 5-4 the last time the justices decided an abortion case in 2007, and Justice Anthony Kennedy is expected to hold the controlling vote on a divided court.

The case tests whether tough new standards for clinics and the doctors who work in them are reasonable measures intended to protect women’s health or a pretext designed to make abortions hard, if not impossible, to obtain.

Texas clinics challenged the 2013 law as a violation of a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion.

The high court previously blocked parts of the Texas law. The court took no action on a separate appeal from Mississippi, where a state law would close the only abortion clinic, in Jackson.

States have enacted a wave of measures in recent years that have placed restrictions on when in a pregnancy abortions may be performed, imposed limits on abortions using drugs instead of surgery and raised standards for clinics and the doctors who work in them.

The new case concerns the last category. In Texas, the fight is over two provisions of the law that then-Gov. Rick Perry signed in 2013. One requires abortion facilities to be constructed like surgical centers. The other allows doctors to perform abortions at clinics only if they have admitting privileges at a local hospital.

Twenty-two states have surgical center requirements for abortion clinics, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which supports legal access to abortion. Eleven states impose admitting privileges requirements on doctors who perform abortions in clinics, the institute said.

The measures go beyond what is necessary to ensure patients’ safety because the risks from abortions in the first trimester of pregnancy, when the overwhelming majority of abortions are performed, are minimal, the institute said.

Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said Texas is one of several states that have enacted “sham laws” to restrict access to abortion.” This law does not advance women’s health and in fact undermines it,” Northup said.

There is no dispute that the law has had a significant impact on Texas clinics. The state had 41 abortion clinics before the clinic law. More than half of those closed when the admitting privileges requirement was allowed to take effect. Nineteen clinics remain.

Northup said the effect of the law has been to increase wait times for women in the Dallas area from an average of five days to 20 days.

The focus of the dispute at the Supreme Court is whether the law imposes what the court has called an undue burden on a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion. If allowed to take full effect, the law would leave no abortion clinics west of San Antonio and only one operating on a limited basis in the Rio Grande Valley.

The state has argued that women in west Texas already cross into New Mexico to obtain abortions at a clinic in suburban El Paso.

In its decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in 1992, the court ruled that states generally can regulate abortion unless doing so places an undue burden on women. Casey was a huge victory for abortion-rights advocates because it ended up reaffirming the constitutional right to an abortion that the court established in Roe v. Wade in 1973.

In 2007, a divided court upheld a federal law that bans an abortion procedure that opponents call partial-birth abortion and opened the door to new limits on abortion.

Kennedy was one of three authors of the Casey opinion and he wrote the majority opinion in 2007.

Public opinion polls have consistently shown an edge for abortion rights. Fifty-one percent of Americans think abortion should be legal in most or all cases and 45 percent think it should be illegal in most or all cases, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll in January and February.

The case is Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole, 15-274.

Rhythms of everyday life, touring old Havana

In some destinations, tourist areas are located far from the rhythms of everyday life. But visitors who wander through Old Havana — Habana Vieja, as locals call it — can’t help but get a sense of how ordinary Cubans live.

You’ll see uniformed school children, street vendors selling colorful fruits and peppers from carts, clotheslines hung from patios, and small dogs sunning themselves on sidewalks. There are lines at government-run offices for phone service and banking, and bicycle taxis ferrying passengers through the narrow streets. You might hear a rooster crow, a caged songbird, salsa music or the engine of an old car roaring as it trundles past. Watch out for pipes jutting from windows: Water may pour out from housework being done inside.

Nearly every street seems to have a sign attesting to something of cultural or historic significance. O’Reilly Street, for example, named for an Irishman who became a leader in the Spanish colonies and married into a prominent Cuban family, bears a plaque with a rather poetic allusion to the histories of Ireland and Cuba: “Two island peoples in the same sea of struggle and hope.”

Many buildings are terribly rundown. It’s not unusual to see the sky through a roofless stone facade or piles of rubble in the street. But other sites have been beautifully restored, especially around the squares in the eastern half of the neighborhood bordering the water. Spend a few hours walking through Plaza Vieja, Plaza de Armas, Plaza San Francisco and Cathedral Square. Many museums and other attractions are located here, including the Museum of Rum, which offers visitors a swig at the end of the tour, and the Ambos Mundos Hotel, which has an excellent short tour of a room where Ernest Hemingway lived and wrote.

Another cluster of major attractions is located in the western half of the neighborhood, near the Prado or Paseo de Marti, a boulevard that divides Old Havana from Central Havana. The Prado itself is worth a stroll, especially on Sundays when it hosts an outdoor art market. Adjacent to the Prado is the Parque Central (Central Park), home to a statue of revolutionary hero Jose Marti. A block over, between Agramonte and Avenida de Las Misiones (Belgica), you’ll find the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, with extraordinary collections of Cuban art in one building and international art in another, and the Museo de la Revolucion, with a tank and the famous boat “Granma” used by Fidel Castro outdoors and a wall of cartoons inside called “Cretins’ Corner” mocking American presidents Ronald Reagan and both George Bushes.

Watch out for hustlers near the Parque Central. Resist all invitations from overly friendly strangers who invite you to a bar or to buy cigars. But if you need a drink, choices abound, including a trio of historic spots. Hemingway frequented El Floridita (located at Obispo No. 557) and La Boguedita del Medio (Empedrado No. 207), while Sloppy Joe’s, where the messy ground beef concoction supposedly was invented, was a setting for the movie “Our Man in Havana,” based on the Graham Greene novel about a bumbling spy.

But more enjoyable than the tourist crowds and watery mojitos at La Bodeguita are the relaxed outdoor cafes in the old squares on the other side of Habana Vieja. Nothing is lovelier than sipping a Cristal beer in Plaza San Francisco or Plaza Vieja in early evening, when the day’s heat dissipates and sweet sounds from a three-piece band playing “Guantanamera” drift across the square.

Review: ‘Pleasantville’ has gripping, believable plot

The compelling “Pleasantville” continues Attica Locke’s insightful look at African-American life in Houston, where politics, race and classism converge in myriad ways.

Locke sets her third novel in Pleasantville, a Houston neighborhood that was built after World War II specifically for black families “of means and class.” But this new black middle class also began to wield “unexpected political power” as the community became “a bargaining chip to politicians.”

Jay Porter, a former black activist turned lawyer, has witnessed the changes in race relations through the years, yet he knows that deep-seated prejudice continues to simmer.

“Pleasantville” picks up in 1996, 15 years after the events in 2009’s “Black Water Rising,” which introduced readers to Jay. The years haven’t been kind. His wife has been dead a year now and his mourning has stymied a close relationship with his teenage daughter. His major victory over an oil conglomerate still languishes in the courts, and in his grief, he has neglected his private practice. Jay becomes mired in neighborhood politics when he reluctantly agrees to represent the grandson of a Pleasantville power broker in a murder case.

Locke, a writer and co-producer of the Fox drama “Empire,” gracefully melds politics and racial issues with greed and a family rooted in secrecy for a gripping, believable plot. Jay is a bold character, flawed and realistic, who has had to come to terms with reconciling his activism with supporting a family. His missteps as a parent are true to life, as is his determination to succeed as a father _ and a lawyer.

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