Sheila Tate, Nancy Reagan's press secretary, works a 12-hour day that starts at 7:30 in the morning and creeps toward midnight when there's a state dinner, reception or ball to attend.

Tate has a wish list of what she'd do if only she had the time. She misses the chance to escape, when the season's right, for an entire weekend of skiing, and describes the sport wistfully: "You can be the first one up a hill, up a lift, and come down a hill that has new, fresh snow, and be the only one on the hill. . . You can feel exhilarated and relaxed at the same time."

She squeezes in needlepoint and tennis games. "Needlepoint does something very specific," says Tate. At her previous job as a vice president of Hill and Knowlton, she covered a whole wall of her office with needlepoint.

"When I first took it up, my son was a year or two old. My theory was, you do needlepoint because it's very orderly. When there's total chaos around you -- kids spitting up on your shoulder or chasing the dog around the living room -- you're involved in something orderly and neat. I find it very relaxing."

Since taking the White House job, however, she finds time to do needlepoint only on plane rides; currently, she's stitching a unicorn pillow. She does her best to infect others with the bug: "In order to get someone to sneak off to a needlepoint shop, they've got to be addicts too." Now, she says, practically everybody who works in the East Wing is doing it.

Tate plays tennis with her husband, Bill, at a county-run tennis court every morning between 6 and 6:30; for her, the effect is that "you get to work and you are totally awake."

Working a half-day on Saturday is typical, and Saturday afternoon usually finds her driving her eight-year-old daughter to gymnastics class or taking her 11-year-old son somewhere.

There are parties to go to several times a year in her McLean neighborhood. At a Labor Day block party, the neighbors cordoned off their cul-de-sac with picnic tables covered in checkered cloths, and everybody brought potluck. Another time, a neighbor roasted a whole pig he bought from a farmer. Festivities began at 4 in the morning when the charcoal was prepared, and continued through the day, as everyone kept popping in to check on the pig's progress in the rented outdoor rotisserie.

On the weekend, there might also be the occasional Important Invitation, when the Reagans sometimes invite the Tates to their Sunday-night movie screenings at the White House. "That's fun," says Tate. With the Reagans and a few other guests, they've seen "Reds," "From Mao to Mozart" and "E.T."

It's not really a command appearance: "If you already had plans, you could turn them down," says Tate. "But I really work for the Reagans. We are not in an intimate social relationship with them. So it's always an honor to be included in something like that, and you want to go to it."

When entertaining at her home, Tate bakes bread ahead and freezes it, makes casseroles and heats them in the microwave, and in general subscribes to the shoes-off school. "One of my favorite experiences," recalls Tate, "the most disarming dinner party I ever went to, the hostess was enjoying her guests and she said, 'Let's see. What was I going to serve you for dinner?' "

"Sundays I will prepare a really nice meal for my family and say, please remember this meal next week -- and maybe the week after. Remember I do know how to cook." Weeknights, dinner is served at 8:30, something simple like hotdogs or steak and salad. "Eat it together and send your children immediately to bed," says Tate.

Having grown up in Falls Church, Tate, who is 40, remembers when the Watergate was nothing but a shell of steps to sit on to listen to military bands. The novelty of Wolf Trap hasn't worn off for her, and the same for Kennedy Center. But her all-time favorite weekend activity is picnicking at Great Falls, Virginia, or in Rock Creek Park. For local trips, she says, "The Homestead and Tides Inn in Virginia are just two of the best places in the whole world."

Tate's favorite Washington restaurant is La Maree at 19th and I streets NW. "Nobody's ever heard of it," she says. She's been partial to the Old Europe since she was a kid and also loves the Alpine Restaurant on Glebe Road for northern Italian food, and Zachary's in McLean for Middle Eastern food.

On the weekends, she can't go shopping enough, but, she says, "I manage to spend a lot of money with very little time to do it."

"My idea of luxury," says Tate, "would be to have a whole day to shop.""