Authors Posts by Leah Dunaief

Leah Dunaief


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Does it annoy you too when the pitchman in the commercial urges negotiating with your credit card company, with the advertiser’s help of course, to pay less than you owe? It’s the same message when it comes to “settling” with the IRS. “You don’t have to pay all that you owe,” encourages the adman’s voice. “Call us and we’ll reduce your amount to a third without bankruptcy.”

What about us poor schnooks who paid every last penny of what we owed? Were we incredibly stupid when we could have gotten off with far less cost? Maybe it’s only the rich who pay everything they owe, but I know that’s not true. Men and women will work two and three jobs to be able to meet their expenses, especially those incurred for their children. They must not know that all they had to do was run up the bills — the higher, the better — then declare that they couldn’t afford them, and they would get a reduction of their debt.

What has happened to honor? Maybe it is just those of us of a certain age who still carry these old-fashioned ideas in our heads. “Pay as you go” was my parents’ adage. The idea of a credit card puzzled them. If you couldn’t afford to buy a car when you wanted one, then wait until you had the money and you could buy it. Delayed gratification was admired. They were even dubious about a mortgage, although that became the American way after World War II.

But the thought of not honoring one’s debts was anathema. In essence you gave your word when you accepted credit, and “your word was your bond.” People who walked away from their debts expected to go to prison, certainly not to call a “negotiator” who would beat down your creditor into accepting less — or nothing at all.

Donald Trump raised the possibility of our nation reducing its national debt by bargaining with our creditors, an unwelcome but nonetheless real technique in business. These creditors of American debt would include other nations, as well as widows and orphans who buy U.S. government bonds because they believe in our creditworthiness — our honor to repay. People who cannot repay, while they no longer are imprisoned in a jail, are imprisoned by their actions. They are never trusted to the same extent again, and if they have to borrow in the future they pay a significantly higher rate of interest on the borrowed money, if they can get a loan at all.

The same holds for nations. Those countries whose economies crashed have had to pay exorbitant interest on their bonds to entice new capital, and their people have been impoverished in the long run, leading to disastrous social unrest. History is rife with such examples.

So what is a person, whose intentions at the time of borrowing were honorable but whose circumstances have dramatically changed through no fault of his or her own, to do with that debt? Borrowers may lose their jobs; they or a family member may get sick and require ruinous financial support; insurance on property or health may be insufficient or nonexistent — and so forth. As the expression goes, “life happens.”

Most commonly, the terms of repayment can be changed. A longer time in which to repay the borrowed money can be arranged, allowing the borrower a chance to recover from whatever the disaster. This lowers the monthly rate of repayment although it does increase the total cost of the debt. But it does preserve creditworthiness — and reputation. That solution only works, however, if there are good prospects down the line and a willingness on the part of the debtors to assume responsibility for their actions. In circumstances where there is no hope for recovery, then bankruptcy is the only choice.

But the idea of those who know how to play the system bouncing from one loan to the next with little consequence is unacceptable and makes fools of us all. And those who make a business out of helping such individuals run off with other people’s money are worse yet.

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One of the more curious footnotes to World War II occurred 75 years ago this week. On a May evening in 1941, Rudolph Hess, deputy führer of the Third Reich and No. 3 man in line of succession after Hitler and Hermann Göring, flew solo from Germany to Scotland and parachuted into the waiting arms of the British.

So who was Hess and why did he make this bizarre wartime flight? He was born into a prosperous German merchant family living in Egypt just before the turn of the 20th century. The oldest of three children, he was by inclination a warrior and immediately after World War I broke out, he joined the infantry. He was wounded several times during the war, always returning to the front when he recovered and earning medals that included the Iron Cross in 1915. Toward the end of hostilities, he trained as an aviator.

In 1919 he continued his education at the University of Munich and attended a class taught by Karl Haushofer, a proponent of the principle of lebensraum (“living space”), which urged the need for more land. Postwar life in Bavaria at that time was chaotic, with fights erupting between right-wing groups and Communists, and Hess was drawn to battles in the streets as a member of the Thule Society, an extreme anti-Semitic gang.

In 1920, after hearing Hitler speak at a Nazi rally in Munich, Hess became totally devoted to him and joined the Nazi Party. From then on Hess was almost inseparable from Hitler, being at his side in the abortive Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 when Hitler tried to stage a coup d’état, and was in prison with him subsequently where he talked to Hitler about the lebensraum idea that became a pillar of the Nazi platform and justification for conquering lands in Eastern Europe. And while in prison, Hess helped Hitler write his “Mein Kampf” (“My Struggle”). After they were released, he was even subsequently injured protecting Hitler from a bomb planted by a Marxist group.

When Hitler and the Nazis finally did seize power in 1933, Hess became a cabinet member and was frequently the one who would introduce Hitler at rallies and speaking engagements. If Hitler could not attend, Hess would be his surrogate, addressing the crowds. Part of his cabinet responsibilities was to cosign every law decreed by Hitler, including the Nuremberg Laws, which stripped Jews of their rights as German citizens and set the stage for the Holocaust.

Meanwhile Hess regularly took lessons, becoming ever more skilled as a pilot. When war broke out in 1939, he asked Hitler if he could join the Luftwaffe but Hitler forbade it, telling him he couldn’t fly again until the end of the war but eventually limiting the ban to one year. Hess had been Hitler’s private secretary for years but was replaced by Martin Bormann, who gradually surpassed Hess in his relationship to Hitler.

About the time his flying ban was lifted, Hess confided to his son that he wanted to arrange peace negotiations between Hitler and Churchill. He talked about flying to meet with the Duke of Hamilton in Scotland, who was known to Albrecht Haushofer, the son of Hess’ professor and with whom Hess had become a good friend. They believed, mistakenly, that Hamilton was a leader of the opposition against the war. Hess began outfitting a sophisticated airplane with the necessary equipment to reach Scotland, including auxiliary fuel tanks, and after abortive tries due to weather or mechanical limitations, finally took off on May 10, 1941. That was six weeks before Hitler planned Operation Barbarossa, the surprise invasion of the Soviet Union. Hess was distressed at the prospect of two fronts and was determined to get Britain to sit out the rest of the war.

Hess was able to get to the coast of Britain before the radar picked him up, and before fighter planes sent up to intercept him could shoot him down. He flew at extremely low altitude and when he was near his destination, he parachuted out of his plane and landed within a few miles of Hamilton’s home. Churchill was not interested in his plan and the British held him as a prisoner of war. Hitler was reportedly enraged by Hess’ action and, disavowing any such knowledge on his part, stripped Hess of all his offices and decorations, fearing the response of Mussolini and the Japanese to such a unilateral move. Ultimately Hess was tried in the first round of prisoners at the Nuremberg trials and sentenced to life. He died in Spandau Prison in 1987 at age 93 by suicide.

The question will always remain for historians to argue: Did Hitler send Hess on his doomed mission?

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Would you like to know what Ava Gardner had to say about her first husband, Mickey Rooney? Stay tuned.

Despite having passed away two years ago, Mickey Rooney walks the stage at the Ward Melville Heritage Organization’s Education and Cultural Center in Stony Brook village. That bit of otherworldly magic is thanks to the artistry of St. George Productions, whose acting company members make the famous come alive again.

Rooney’s first wife was Ava Gardner, and I was interested to read Gardner’s autobiography after a brief stop at her museum in Smithfield, North Carolina recently. We were driving up Route 95, returning from a visit to Hilton Head, when one of our group suggested we see the museum. It was started near her hometown with seed money left by the actress. Now, I don’t know how many of you remember her or have seen her films, but she was right up there in stardom with the likes of Rita Hayworth, Grace Kelly, Judy Garland and Elizabeth Taylor. Some of her leading men were Clark Gable, Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton, Robert Taylor, Burt Lancaster — and Mickey.

She was a head taller than Mickey Rooney, and she met him on her first day on the MGM studio sets. He was dressed like the famous Brazilian dancer, Carmen Miranda, for his role in the movie, “Babes on Broadway,” with Judy Garland. He was two years older than Gardner and at that time, 1941, he was the most popular star in America. He had acted as Mickey McGuire, the character from the comic strip, Toonerville Trolley for seven years and then as Andy Hardy, the beloved teenager, for ten years after that. Rooney was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1939, and was earning $5,000 a week, plus bonuses. He knew how to act and he also knew what he wanted. He phoned Gardner every night for the first two weeks she was in Hollywood, until he finally got her to go out with him to dinner—as long as she could bring along her older sister.

Initially stunned by his shortness, Gardner describes Rooney as “charming, romantic and great fun.” She offered, “I had to say one thing for him: He sure had energy.”

“He was the original laugh-a-minute boy, and even the second or third time around, his stories, jokes, and gags were funny. There wasn’t a minute when he wasn’t onstage. He loved an audience, and I tried to be as good a one as I knew how.” They were engaged before her 19th birthday. They were both kids without the slightest idea of what marriage should be. Mickey woke up after their wedding night and left Ava to go off with his gang of buddies and play golf.

Mickey did endear himself when they visited her ill mother, shortly after they were married. “He entertained Mama, he hugged her, he made her laugh, he brought tears to her eyes. He did his impersonations, he did his songs and dances—it was a wonderful, wonderful occasion for Mama, who we all knew was slowly dying. Although I had loved Mickey from the start, that show he put on moved me beyond words.”

His normal lifestyle, which he continued after their marriage, according to Ava, was “boozing, broads, bookmakers, golfing and hangers-on, not to mention the heavy involvement of studio work and publicity.” She was most appalled by the philandering. They divorced two years later.

They stayed friends for the rest of their lives, dating from time to time after their divorce, until they both went on to other spouses. For Mickey, that was a beauty queen that he met in Birmingham, Alabama. He was married a total of eight times.

According to Mearene Jordan, Gardner’s helper, who wrote a chapter at the end of the book, “Mickey Rooney was a funny little guy—she got a big kick out of him. She saw him last year and she said, “Reenie, he’s still the biggest liar in the world. Poor Mickey, he cannot tell the truth, he never could. But he’s cute.”

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This is in the nature of a small confession. Until this past Tuesday, I have never, to my best recollection, voted in a primary. So I guess this time offered the most exciting possibilities that drew me to the voting booth. And for that injection of enthusiasm into what has traditionally been an overlong and boring presidential election process, I guess that we ought to thank Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. They have presented us with some real options instead of the usual Tweedledum and Tweedledee candidates.

Whatever happens from this point on, New York state has uncharacteristically played a significant part in this election. Until April, by the time we here have our primaries, the dust has usually cleared and our outcomes haven’t particularly registered on the political Richter scale. This time was different.

Yes, advance polling had projected Trump and Hillary Clinton victories. But the wide margin for both was a major additional factor. With just a few precincts to report, Trump had won 60 percent of the vote in a three-way race; and Clinton won 58 percent against Sanders, holding together a wide coalition of voters more typical of the national voter profile. Some other interesting points: John Kasich came in a solid second with 25 percent; the only district Trump lost was Manhattan, his home, which went to Kasich; and Ted Cruz was a distant third which was predictable, if for no other reason than after his “New York values” comment earlier in the contest.

I have often thought that the race for president goes on far too long but I read an article recently in The New York Times that gave me a different perspective. The writer suggested that the contest could be compared to a job interview, in this case the most powerful job in the world, and that we were the employers, which as voters I guess we are.

So in this long interviewing process, we get a chance to see how the candidates react when in friendly domains, when under pressure from unfriendly spectators and when they are in an adversarial role, attacking each other. These are all simulations of the job they are after, and their reactions are revealing. We also get to judge how well they manage a complex campaign over a considerable period of time. Few would disagree that the stark contrast between the campaigns of Obama and Clinton contributed to Clinton’s loss in 2008. Besides being president and commander in chief, the winner had darn well be a good manager. Although he won the election in 1976 against Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter will go down in history as one of the U.S. presidents’ worst managers who tried in vain to micromanage throughout his four years. Ronald Reagan handily beat him in 1980 and could be known as the delegator in chief for the way he managed his administration until he became ill.

Trump and Clinton, if they wind up going head-to-head in November, also offer stark contrasts. Regardless of whom one intends to vote for, few would deny that Clinton has the most experience in government and Trump has the least. This is the great advantage for Clinton and paradoxically the great advantage for Trump. People who are dissatisfied with the direction our country is headed — or their own lives — or look at government in Washington as abdication of responsibility, see Trump as an unsullied outsider capable of shaking out the deadwood and turning things around. He continually refers to himself as a “deal maker,” capable of making the United States great again. And Russian President Putin likes him, another first for an American presidential election.

Clinton has the problem of being “old goods,” familiar as the paintings on the wall that go unappreciated with time. And for various reasons, people profess not to like her, as if that is a criterion for the highest office. Do they have to like her? In fact I have met her half-a-dozen times and unlike the public face she presents from the podium, she struck me as not only likeable but also delightful and quite human. On the other hand, do people trust her to reflect their values and do the right thing when under great stress? That is the biggest voter question, and in New York state Tuesday the answer came back a resounding “yes.”

Stay tuned.

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Saratoga Springs had snow on the ground when I arrived at dusk for the start of the New York Press Association convention a week ago Wednesday. Coming from Long Island, where daffodils are brightly nodding at passersby, forsythia are beacons of the coming spring and buds are finally on the tips of skeletal tree limbs, I had left the world of winter behind. So it was a bit of a shock to see how far we at home had advanced.

My first workshop in the morning was a valuable one dealing with good organizational management. What’s that, you might ask? To me that means working in a corporate or nonprofit group of any kind, productively, happily and successfully. It means optimizing resources and achieving a group’s lofty goals in a way that is most satisfying both to members of the group and to its clientele. It also means innovating to embrace future change even while preserving the core of the business.

What has that to do with us at the newspapers? Stay with me and I will reveal a nice surprise.

In the past, in what we now call “the old industrial age,” the manner in which organizations ran was hierarchical, meaning from the top down in a vertical fashion. You’ve undoubtedly seen such graphics depicting the CEO at the top, followed below by the next row of managers, with further rows below them. Those workers in each row reported to the manager immediately above them, with final decisions coming down from above. That was how the company managed its decision-making and workflow.

Today the model for better management has dramatically changed. Corporate flow charts have flattened and been transformed into more of a web than a ladder. The group chart is horizontal rather than vertical, perhaps influenced by the internet. Employees at all levels of a company or group are vested in the decision-making process, to the greater success and satisfaction of personnel making the product or performing the service and its quality for the end user.

That is optimal organizational management today, led by Silicon Valley high technology companies in the larger corporate world, who took away titles, reserved parking places and physical partitions, and created the sense of equal participation and valued input that constantly push toward change while still maintaining the traditional business.

So now for the nice surprise.

We at Times Beacon Record News Media, celebrating our 40th anniversary this month, have always run the business as a web rather than a ladder. Why? Because the people who have worked here, a great many of whom are still with us, have been respected for their talent and commitment and encouraged to offer their best ideas, concerns and input. We have been very lucky with the type of person who chooses to work with us, and we are most appreciative of our good fortune in that regard.

Now comes the best part. While we have had many talented men working here, and we still do, we are nonetheless an organization with a majority of women. And I learned in business school, many years ago, that webs rather than ladders are instinctively more typical of women. Along with the networking concept go ideas like job sharing in order to combine work and also manage sick children, flexible hours, working at home and being innovative in order to do more in less time. The final products, which is what our work is about, have been stellar.

In the early years, when a couple of experienced older men had joined our sales team, they were deeply puzzled by our management style. “Just tell us what you want us to do, and we’ll go out and do it,” they urged more than once at our ideas-generating meetings. They came from the old school in believing that dictatorship is the most efficient form of management, as I suppose it is.

By the time I left Saratoga Springs Sunday morning, the snow had disappeared. I could hear a bird singing through my open car window, and against the blue sky, I believe I caught sight of a few tiny buds on trees limbs. Sometimes it just takes a little extra time for different parts of the world to catch up.

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Earlier this week, there was a news report on the radio that 50 percent of hotel rooms in London and Paris were empty. Individuals, tour groups, even business travelers had canceled their reservations and were staying home. The statistics made me sad.

When I was graduating from high school in 1958, I passionately wanted to travel to some distant shores and see what life in those countries was all about. I had read about Paris in my French class, had translated Julius Caesar’s “The Gallic Wars” from the original Latin, studied the rise and growth of democracy and personal freedoms in my history class, and tried to understand political ideas like communism and socialism in political science class. Now I wanted to see these concepts in action in the real world. My mother was adamant: “You can travel to Europe with your husband. Not before!”

Sure enough, the first time I crossed the Atlantic, I sat beside my husband on an eight-day guided tour of London. How fascinating and instructional it all was. How much knowledge I amassed by the time I returned. How much more I understood. I was hooked on travel for the rest of my life.

It was said then that we were citizens of our countries, but our children and grandchildren would be citizens of the world. And that prediction has come true. My grandchildren have already been to three different continents. The impressions they brought back have made them smarter, better and more compassionate people, and they have not yet even reached their majority.

But what about today? Are the risks worth the rewards? We know there is a lot in the news these days to make us angry and fearful. Maybe those two emotions are really the same. Almost every day there are reports of carnage of innocent people across the globe triggered by terrorists who want to make a political or sectarian statement, or are looking for revenge. The death and maiming of those victims, whose only misstep was being in the wrong place at the wrong time, is a modern tragedy — a game of Russian roulette. The more gruesome the killings, the more notice their assailants get. Children killed, sure. People slaughtered as they are kneeling in prayer, yes. Aid workers risking their lives with humanitarian motives … kill them. The ultimate idea is to spread a tsunami of fear and isolation.

When people stop traveling, the terrorists know their brutal efforts are working. In a world that has become wonderfully global — with citizens of different countries interacting and coming to understand the customs and religions of each other, with economies benefiting from tourist spending that raises standards of living — travel is a natural target for those who would bomb us back into the Stone Age. And to what end? The purpose of the killers is power, the power to better control the masses, to attract followers by using corrupted ideology and perverted religious tenets, to enrich themselves with plunder — age-old strategies throughout the bloody centuries. Nothing new here.

What is new is a world interconnected by jet planes and Internet information in a way that was unimaginable in the past. Yes, there was the Silk Road and trade routes around the capes of the continents centuries ago. But they were open only to the adventurous few, and those few were more interested in commerce than in societal change. Too many people now have tasted the fruits of travel, enjoyed the wonders of seeing new treasures, tasting new foods, enjoying new dances, meeting new people, appreciating new lifestyles, applauding different forms of government, for the clock to ever be turned back. That is why the killers seek to destroy art and architecture wherever their bloodthirsty rampages take them. They don’t want people to see the different wonders of the world and equate them with new ways to live.

So, is it worth it? Is travel to return to only the most daring and adventurous who sailed the seas and trekked the land? I don’t think so. Remember that old song? “How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?”

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When I was a small child and had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, I would put the light on and one of the first things I would see were two sets of false teeth sitting in small glasses of water on the shelf above the sink. The teeth belonged to my mother and father, and I knew they took them out of their mouths before they went to bed and replaced them in the morning. So routine was this occurrence to me that I spent many minutes at a time searching my mouth with my fingers for the lever that would allow me to remove my teeth.

Finally I asked my parents, who clued me in to the eventual failings of teeth. I was, after all, the child of two sets of ancestors who had faulty choppers. Again, I just accepted this as the natural course of my life. One day I thought I would be toothless, too, except for a few lucky strays that remained in mouth.

Fast-forward more than half a century, and I still have almost all of my teeth. How did that enormous change come about? Dentistry is an area of health delivery that doesn’t get its proper due for the enormous advances from which we have benefited. The single best development that has preserved my teeth and those of the many millions of people around the world is the root canal procedure.

Now getting a root canal is a least favorite activity and deservedly so. But the journalist in me wants to tell the other side of the story, just to be fair. The patient I have been numerous times wants to salute the researchers and clinicians in dentistry. And although I am sitting at my keyboard in some pain at the moment from part one of a root canal procedure, which is what brought this subject to mind, I want to express my gratitude.

What exactly is a root canal procedure?

Although it’s not particularly difficult to understand, nonetheless it took centuries to invent. As I understand it, bacteria from a crack in the top of a tooth can get into the pulp below the naturally occurring enamel crown and cause an infection. Even if there is no infection, cold or heat or air can cause the nerves inside the tooth to register pain, which is an alarm.

The roots of the tooth have tiny canals in them in which the nerves reside. If the source of the intrusion that has stimulated the nerve cannot be repaired with a filling over the top of the tooth, then the pulpy decay below the enamel has to be cleaned out and the nerves have to be silenced to stop the pain. That is the function of the root canal procedure. After the nerves are removed, along with the site of any infection, the canals are filled with a sealer paste and rubber compound and covered with a dental cement to protect them from saliva.

All of the above is the job of the endodontist or specialist who uses the sophisticated tools high tech has invented to make this delicate procedure possible and the anesthetic to make it bearable. The patient must then go on, typically to another dentist, to have a crown or cap precisely fitted over the top of the tooth to replace the natural enamel. Crowns used to be made optimally of gold, but are now form-fitted with synthetic material that can be tinted the same color as the rest of the teeth, if necessary.

Interestingly, as a friend pointed out, there is something funny about the semantics involved. One goes to get “a root canal” even though one doesn’t receive “an appendix” but an appendectomy, nor “a tonsils” but a tonsillectomy. Perhaps the dental procedure should be called a “nerve homicide,” but that would only add more fear to an already fearful procedure. Well, that’s about the only funny aspect of this vital but still-dreaded tooth rescue.

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Here is a terrific idea for those of a certain age. Have a pajama party with close friends at a distant and beautiful location of at least three nights duration. Why three nights? Because it takes that long for normally reserved people to open up and speak freely about life as they have known it. Why pajamas? For the same reason. After a day filled with enjoyable activities, like sightseeing, shopping and dining, climbing into pajamas and meeting in the living room to chat goes a long way toward facilitating informality and frank exchange.

And why have such an experience? Because after a lot of years of living, seniors are expected to have amassed some wisdom with the answers to questions that habitually occur to us. One thing is sure: Probably no two people will have the same answers to all the questions, and hearing the different perspectives is thought-provoking and sometimes even comforting.

Now let me be clear. I am not suggesting orgies in the basement. I am saying that much has changed over the period of our lives, and those of us who have seen those changes can understand each other and even commiserate. It’s nice to be understood. It’s valuable to hear how others have dealt with the same opportunities and challenges.

What are some of the subjects that might be discussed?

Death is certainly one. We all face an end to our lives. How do we regard the inevitable? Are we afraid? Probably not so much. With age comes acceptance to a large degree. Is there an afterlife? A purgatory? Will we again be with our loved ones? In fact, do we believe there is a God? And what is the purpose of life? There are no bounds to the scope of discussions. The subjects just flow from each other.

Then there are the endless conversations about children and maybe grandchildren. How have they fared? How much should we help them? What is in store for them? What problems do they have? Have their marriages held together?

There are the huge and sometimes incomprehensible changes in sexual mores and in family values. There are still some who reserve sex for marriage but not many. The word “dating” can have a different connotation than it did when we were much younger. Living together and having children without the benefit of marriage is no longer the object of shame. Yet it may be just difficult for older people to accept, especially if members of the family are involved in such arrangements.

The relationship between men and women and hence between husbands and wives has undergone revolutionary change. And the issue of rape has become public, especially rape on campus. There was no such mention by past generations.

Health issues are a perennial topic for conversation. Trading remedies, physician and physical therapist names, healthy tips for diets and dieting, exercise and stress reduction are common themes. Discussions of the outcomes from hip and knee surgeries and even dental implants fill the airwaves and can truly offer needed information and help.

Music is another area of tremendous change. What one generation danced to, another can find boring. But there is unending admiration by seniors for the younger generation’s mastery of cellphones, laptops and the Internet. Yet there are some older folks who adamantly resist texting.

The truth is that we all need support groups and affirmation. We can also benefit from well-placed critiques that can be more easily accepted from contemporaries. And there is always lots of room for laughter, even belly laughs.

Pajama parties can provide the context for such engagement. Besides why should only kids have all the fun.

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Although I never her, I was the beneficiary of Nancy Reagan’s good taste. I was invited to the White House by President Ronald Reagan’s press office, my second visit after one during President Jimmy Carter’s term. The contrast between the two visits could not be more stark.

The former first lady died this week at the age of 94, outliving her husband by nine years. In reality she had started to lose him more than 10 years earlier in what she termed “her long goodbye,” as his suffering from Alzheimer’s disease carried him into his own world. Theirs was a long marriage in which they seemed devoted to each other, and she passionately protected him and his image as he moved from president of the Screen Actors Guild to governor of California to president of the United States. She said that her “greatest ambition” was to have a “successful, happy marriage.”

She may well have yearned for that as a result of her early childhood experiences. She was born Anne Frances Robbins in 1921, the daughter of Edith Luckett and Kenneth Robbins. Her mother was an actress and her father a car dealer who abandoned them shortly after she was born. When she was 2, her mother resumed her acting career. Then, when Nancy was almost 8 years old, her mother married a Chicago neurosurgeon, Loyal Davis, and overnight her circumstances reversed. Her life was now one of stability and privilege, and she went on eventually to graduate from an elite high school and then Smith College as Nancy Davis in 1943.

She might well have endorsed Sophie Tucker’s famous maxim: “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. … Rich is better.”

When Reagan was elected governor and the Reagans were expected to live in the governor’s mansion, which was at that time a run-down Victorian house on a busy, one-way street in Sacramento, Calif., she convinced her husband to lease at their own expense a 12-room Tudor house in a better neighborhood. Then, when Reagan was elected president, she decided to redo the private living quarters of the White House. She raised $822,000 from private contributors to do that, but she was severely criticized by the press.

Although she had made a number of worthwhile efforts over the years, including welcoming home former prisoners of war from Vietnam at a time when those who fought in the war were sometimes spat upon, and involving herself in a Foster Grandparents Program for mentally disabled children — according to an obit in The New York Times — she was generally regarded in the press as stylish but extravagant and aloof. She was petite, slender, exercised daily and wore expensive, designer clothing at a time when the country was still hobbled with the remains of the 1970s crushing recession. Her first public relations interest was not her own image but that of her husband.

So when she raised more than $200,000 from another contributor to buy a 220-place setting of new presidential china, the first since President Lyndon Johnson’s administration, she was most unpopular as a result. That seemed to reinforce her unflattering image.

Nancy Reagan as first lady traveled widely to speak out against drug and alcohol abuse, especially among young people, and she is the one who coined the phrase, “Just say no.” She also publicly urged women to get mammograms every year after she was diagnosed with breast cancer at a time when that disease was still whispered. And, as you might expect, she was a powerful advocate for new research into Alzheimer’s.

This is how she affected me. When our press group visited with President Carter, we were given lunch in a cardboard box that we held on our laps as we sat in a circle in the Oval Office. It consisted of two halves of different sandwiches, an apple, a bag of chips and a hardboiled egg. I clearly recall watching the president shaking salt on his egg and alternately taking bites. Although I was thrilled to be there and I appreciated the effort to project an image of austerity, I thought it seemed more fitting for a picnic on the lawn than one in the nerve center of the most powerful country in the world.

At President Reagan’s lunch, we ate in the East Wing at cloth-covered tables and were served white wine with our veal scaloppine on beautiful dishes. Now I am not particularly stylish or slender and certainly not a spendthrift, but I wanted to tell Mrs. Reagan, “Right on!”

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This is the critical time, the time when those who cannot hold on any longer have fallen off their New Year’s resolutions track. That’s most of us. The best of intentions, articulated amid holiday cheers, have a way of trailing off in the cold light of January and February.

If you are among those committed few who are going strong and plowing ahead, congratulations. If, however, you are like the rest of us, weak but still wishful, I have some thoughts on the subject of resolutions. Statistics tell us that by Valentine’s Day, 80 percent of people who would like to improve their lives have given up. What we are not told is how many start again. Really, it not necessary for resolutions only to be made beneath mistletoe. If we peter out, we can pick ourselves up and begin anew. The pressure is off. And here are some tricks to sticking with it this time.

Don’t make unrealistic resolutions that are overwhelming. Want to lose 30 pounds? Losing weight is a common idea, but it is hard to break eating habits and it is a slow process. However, breaking the 30 pounds into smaller goals, like 1 pound a week, is doable. And a small success encourages endurance.

Try to find a buddy to lose weight with, even going to the gym together. Whatever your goal is, it’s easier with support from someone else and it surely is more fun. It’s harder to go it alone.

Some people might prefer to keep their resolutions private, in which case the buddy idea doesn’t work. There are some good reasons for privacy. Making public commitments can create too much pressure.

Or maybe you don’t want others to know how bad things really are and how much you need improving — if it isn’t already obvious. And then there are those who try to sabotage you, for whatever reason. It’s not pretty, but such urges exist in humans. Perhaps out of competitive motives or fear, you will be a different person and your adversaries won’t be worthy of you.

Attempt to make resolutions fun. Fix on what you will do or how you will feel once your goal is realized. The drudgery of getting there is taking you ever closer to your ideal.

Making resolutions is a little like making a to-do list. Try to limit the number to the two most important items at most. Otherwise life gets too confusing and energy is dissipated in different directions.

Finally, if you give up, start again. I have. When resolutions become habits, they will carry us to our goal. And habits are much easier to practice than that heavy, multisyllabic word, “resolutions.”