"I could go to Cuba!" one enthuses, staring with delight into his iBook. Nicaragua! Poland! The Czech Republic! Madrid!
"Yeah, but you'd have to major in Spanish," says his brother, staring into his own iBook.
Across the counter, I fiddle with my iBook, scrolling through the day's e-mail. This is how we live in 2005. Our dining room table is covered with sorted piles of mail, school papers and books. We talk, eat and congregate at the kitchen counter, or worse, in front of the television, our computers in our laps.
Last summer, the boys hauled dirt and mulch and washed dishes, earning enough money to buy computers. Each chose the same model as mine, so now we sit around talking and looking at our identical blue-and-white computer screens.
This is not what I imagined when I was 12 years old and first began to fantasize what life as a grown-up would be like. I would be a mother, specifically a mother of four, which, yes, I turned out to be.
In my fantasy, I lived in a cavernous book-lined house with leafy views out curtained windows. I was a famous author of children's books, with cherubic children and an innocuous husband who served largely as models to fill out the picture. They didn't dirty their clothes. They didn't require visits to the dentist. They were eternally good-natured and supportive. The books didn't gather dust. Dinner always was served at the dining room table.
As I watch my children fantasize about their junior years abroad, I wonder how they imagine their lives years from now, as full-fledged adults. They went through childhood phases of wanting to be professional soccer players or the next Bill Gates, but now they hold their dreams close.
Before age 12, I harbored three other ambitions I can remember. I wanted to be a spy -- more a detective, really, gathering clues and busting bad guys. I wanted to be an acrobat in a circus, turning handsprings and backbend walk-overs, swinging from a trapeze. And like 99 percent of the girls who grew up in white middle-class suburban America during the early 1960s, once a year I dreamed of being crowned Miss America. The world would love me for my straight white teeth, gleaming hair, smooth legs, winning personality and fabulous evening gown.
The famous-author-with-four-children fantasy actually seemed mature and semi-realistic compared to those childish fantasies.
Looking to the broad expanse of an adult life, I never imagined myself with a newly grown middle-age belly and a doctor's warning of dangerous cholesterol levels -- a life sentence of low-fat, low-cholesterol, low-calorie meals. The question of money, or whether there would be enough of it, never even was considered. Four children? Snap your fingers, and they're grown, serene and satisfied adults like you.
Even now when I imagine old age, the images don't include arthritic joints, osteoporosis or assisted living. I am in a garden, like now but with whiter hair, dwarfed by six-foot sunflowers, masses of lilies and tall delphinium. There are no weeds.
What do you want to be when you grow up?, the teacher asks, and imaginations leap. Doctor! Actor! President of the United States!
I hope my sons are not thinking of mortgages or middle-age spread. I want them to believe, and still tell them they can be anything they want to be.
A couple years back, my daughter, now almost 29, was back home from New York for a holiday. She was tense and snappy. Finally, I asked her why she seemed so defensive about everything and she began to cry. She was 27, she said, working her tail off and broke all the time, barely making it. She didn't exactly feel like the picture of success.
I looked at her and recounted to her all that she had done in her short life that I still hadn't done in mine. She had a marvelous education. She had lived in India and Berlin, had visited Tibet. She was the healthiest person I knew. She had used her talent and imagination to carve out a unique life that made a place for her art and her passion and that served others.
She was who I wanted to be when I grew up.