For Oprah.com: Gifts for the geeky dad (even after Father’s Day)

Father’s Day may be behind us, but it’s not too late to show Dad what he means to you. And if the dad in your home is as geeky as the dad in our home, technology may be the best way to reconnect.

My husband is an avid digital photographer who shoots hundreds of pictures every month, filling up the hard drive on our home computer. But he enjoys shooting a lot more than organizing, so it’s hard for him to find his favorite images when he wants to show off the kids to his friends or family.

So the kids and I did the work for him. We spent a few weeks reviewing thousands of pictures and selecting the ones the kids like the best. And since the kids did the choosing, it wasn’t about composition or which pictures look cutest. It was about collecting the pictures that show everything they love about their dad: the pictures of mornings spent making pancakes together, weekend expeditions to the park and the first airplane trip he took them on.

On Father’s Day, we loaded the kid-created album onto his iPhone and iPad, putting the pictures on the devices he always has with them. For my geeky husband, a gift that combines gadgets with kid creativity is a match made in heaven.

My own dad was another story. Until just a couple of years ago, his primary computer had a black-and-white monitor and a dial-up modem—hardly the ideal environment for photo sharing. To give him a collection of photos, I got a digital picture frame and preloaded it with a year’s worth of images. He loved seeing a rotating display of his grandchildren, especially since he could see them without turning on his ancient computer.

Whether the dad in your life is a geek or a Luddite, technology can help you celebrate any day when you want to let Dad know how much he means to you.

Gift Giving
For geek dad you can’t go wrong with a gadget, especially one that reminds him of his kids. One that might be new to even a hardened gadget freak is the Jabra Halo is a Bluetooth headset for listening to music or taking calls, which I was lucky enough to receive complimentary from Jabro after my original one broke (I guess they know I am a big fan!).  Pair it with a new playlist of the favorite songs that dad has passed along to his kids: in our house that includes U2’s Pride and Simon & Garfunkel’s Feeling Groovy.

A Luddite dad will be thrilled with a gift that says, “I love you enough to unplug.” Ask your kids to put down their Game Boys and cell phones long enough to make Dad a personal gift. You can find terrific Father’s Day craft projects online. For the younger set, try Kaboose.com; teens can check out Instructables.com for nifty DIY projects like bookends made from old vinyl records.

Bonding Time
A geek dad will enjoy spending quality time with the kids—if quality time involves a pair of game controllers. Red Dead Redemption is a hot new PlayStation and Xbox game your teens can play with Dad; younger kids can enjoy playing Little Big Planet.

And there’s no kinder way to show a Luddite dad your love than with a little tech support. Young kids can use a program like KidPix or the free Tux Paint to make Dad a personalized desktop picture. Older kids can help Dad finally set up his Facebook or Twitter account or teach him how to respond to their text messages. Just think how happy Dad will be when he gets a text that says “HAVING FUN B HOME L8ER” and can respond with his own text saying “ROTFL C U IN 15 MINS.”

Down Time
If the geek dad in your house is anything like the geek dad in my house, there’s no better Father’s Day treat than a couple of hours of geek-out time at your nearest WiFi café. Use JiWire.com to find a WiFi hot spot in your neighborhood, and give Dad a gift card so he can enjoy his coffee and computer time in peace.

For the Luddite dad, give the gift of time offline. Book him a tee time using GolfPatio.com. Find the nearest yoga class on YogaFinder.com. Visit CookingSchools.com, and send him to a cooking class so he can perfect his pie crust. Whatever his hobby, you can use the Web to ensure he can enjoy a few relaxing hours to himself.

For Your Own Dad
A recent study found that Internet use reduces the risk of depression in seniors, so if your own dad is among the millions of older Americans who are now logging on, give him a cheer! Pay tribute to your geek dad by creating a Facebook album full of pictures of the two of you together; tag him in all the photos so your proud papa will show up in his friends’ news feeds.

Or help your Luddite dad enjoy the photos he’s missing online by printing those adorable photos of the grandkids onto something he can keep around the house or office. Go beyond the usual mug or mouse pad by ordering a customized jacket, sneakers or photo sculpture on Zazzle.com.

All Year Round
The best thing you can do for Dad is to make sure that June 20 isn’t the only day he feels extra special. So queue up a few dozen tweets for a geek dad that send him jokes, how-tos or simple “I love yous”; services like HootSuite.com will let you schedule a whole series of tweets to go out over the course of the next year.

You can make Luddite dad feel just as special by reminding yourself to tell him how much he means to you.  Enter an appointment in your computer’s calendar with a title like “Do something special for Dad.” Then set it to repeat once a month or even once a week.

Of course, you don’t need a computer to remind Dad that you love him. But turning your computer into a dad-loving machine is a great way to remind yourself and your kids that your time online is most meaningful when it helps you deepen your connections to the people you love.

Do you have some ideas about how to use the Web to celebrate dads? Share your thoughts below!

This blog post is adapted from a Father’s Day post that originally appeared on Oprah.com.

Now on Oprah.com: Life passages online, plus an empty nest bonus

My latest blog post for Oprah.com, How to find support online, talks about ways to get support during life passages. Whether you’re celebrating milestones like the birth of a baby, a marriage or a birthday, or confronting challenges like death or illness, I’ve got some pointers on how the web can help.

Here’s one passage I didn’t tackle in the piece: what to do with your newly empty nest. We are still many years away from having an empty nest ourselves, but a number of our friends now have grown or nearly-grown kids. Here’s what I suggest to them about how to use the web to smooth the transition:

  1. Keep in touch: If you’ve never been one for video chat, this is the time to start using Skype. If you’ve avoided friending your kids on Facebook, it’s now the best way to keep in touch with them (here is a great story on how to do that gracefully). And for heaven’s sake, learn how to read your text messages so your kids can text you when they want to come home and do a load of laundry.
  2. Get out and play: Remember what it was like when you had small kids and couldn’t go out at night? Let me the voice of housebound evenings past: having kids at home is lovely, but I envy you your newfound freedom! So get out there and have some fun. Find events and concerts on Upcoming or Eventful; get recommendations for movies on Metacritic; book a dinner at the new hot restaurant on OpenTable.
  3. Make contact: Odds are good that your kids are using some kind of location service like FourSquare or Gowalla. These services ask you to “check in” when you visit a bar, theater or just about any other kind of location; a lot of young people use location services so they can find out where their friends are hanging out, and then meet up with them. If you can convince your kids to tell you which service(s) they use, and friend you on them, you’ll be able to “spontaneously” turn up when they are visiting a café or bar. Just make sure you have some ground rules for when they do and don’t want to see Mom show up at their favorite watering hole. And if your kids don’t want you to find them, you can use FourSquare or Gowalla to meet up with your grown-up buddies instead.
  4. Redecorate: Let’s get to the real benefit of your empty nest: that spare room! The sooner you repurpose it, the less likely it is that your kids will boomerang back and settle in until they turn 40. My vote is for a home theater, but you might be happier with a craft room or a gym. Whatever your dream, the web can offer you lots of great ideas on how to get it done.

Have you got other suggestions for using the web to enjoy your empty nest? Questions about how social media can support other life passages? I’d love to hear from you.

Read more of my posts for Oprah.com.

My latest for Oprah.com: Is an iPad Right for Your Family?

“I got an iPad!” my daughter announces to a friend.

“No honey, I got an iPad,” I remind her.

The argument over who the iPad belongs to is just one of the many wrinkles in our new life as The iPad Family. Self-serve movie watching, GodFinger addiction, bedtime stories that read themselves — these are just a few of the issues we’ve had to confront since the iPads joined our family.

Learn the five questions to ask before your family goes to the Apple Store in my latest post for Oprah.com, Is an iPad right for your family?

6 Ways to Get Wired and Inspired

This post originally appeared on Oprah.com.

The Internet has a terrible way of distracting a girl: You sit down to search job postings, and you end up in a chat room with some guy in Thailand who wants to know how you refinished your floors.

When I posted my long-term goals online in December 2004, it was a way of procrastinating the immediate goal of getting a job:

  • Be invited to a gay wedding.
  • Hire our first fabulous employee.
  • Meet Stephen Sondheim.
  • Never use the word “synergy.”

It doesn’t have to be that way. Instead of yielding to the siren song of online distraction, you can use your computer to connect to your goals—and to find the inspiration to achieve them.

That’s exactly the point of 43 Things, the website I used to record my goals. It asks a simple question, “What do you want to do with your life?” and gives you a quick way to record up to 43 answers. Five years after recording my initial goals, I’ve crossed almost two dozen off my list…including some big ones, like “start a company that lasts longer than two years,” “create a writing group” and “potty-train my son.”

I’d love to tell you that 43 Things is the tooth fairy of the Internet: Stick your to-do under a virtual pillow and wake up to a giant check mark. But no, I had to do the hard work of finding clients, fellow writers and rubber bedsheets. What 43 Things supplied was the focus, advice and support to help me do it.

We tend to think of setting goals and seeking inspiration as highly personal. But achieving our goals is not always a solitary pursuit: The encouragement and resources of a larger community can help us do something we couldn’t do alone.

Your computer can support both sides of this equation. It can be a solitary meditation room, an artist’s garret, a silent retreat or even the red carpet entrance to the party of your dreams—where your best friend, favorite musician and newfound mentor gather to offer help and cheer you on.

Here are some of the ways you can plug into inspiration on your solitary desktop or on the social Web:

Create an Inspiration Playlist
Use iTunes or your favorite MP3 manager to create a playlist of songs that inspire you. Since I’m a big Broadway nerd (yes, in addition to being a tech nerd), my playlist is full of my favorite inspiring show tunes like “No One Is Alone” (Into the Woods) and “What I Did for Love” (A Chorus Line). I listen to it when I’m working on a creative project, going for a run or just need a boost. Burn your playlist to a CD so you can have copies in your car and at work: Nobody needs to know that you wrote that terrific report while listening to “Wind Beneath My Wings.”

Create an Inspiration Feed
As fascinating as it is to read about the Fruit Loops my best friend is eating for breakfast, sometimes I want a little more fiber in my Facebook or Twitter feeds. So I’ve created a group of people to follow on Twitter strictly for their inspiration value. It includes the latest tweets from the likes of David Badash (a prolific, funny and thoughtful gay rights activist and writer), Tricycle magazine (a Buddhist publication) and Angela Raincatcher (an artist). I peek at the latest tweets from my “inspire” group throughout the day; these words of inspiration are a great counterweight to the gossip and links that otherwise overwhelm my online experience. You can do the same thing on Facebook by creating a list of your most inspiring friends and clicking on the name of that list when you’re viewing your Facebook homepage.
Inspire Your Password
Using your dog’s birthday as your email password may help you remember to pick up an extra juicy soup bone when the big day rolls around, but it’s not doing anything for your inspiration-starved soul. Take those passwords you punch in day after day after day—your email password, your Facebook log-in, even your bank PIN—and turn them into pick-me-ups. Try a password like B3Y0urs3lf or JustD01t or Trust1nU, mixing letters with numbers (4 for A, zero instead of O, 1 instead of L or I) for extra security.

Bookmark Your Inspiration
You’ve got browser bookmarks for every newsletter in your field and every after-school program in your neighborhood. That’s great for your work and your kid—but what about your heart? You can use your browser’s bookmark collection to create collections of online resources related to spirituality, creativity, mental health—whatever inspires you and keeps you on track. My inspiring bookmarks range from ideas for beating writer’s block to short meditations that inspire me.

Inspire Your Desktop
The background on your computer doesn’t have to be an ad for your computer manufacturer. Whether you’re moved by a panoramic view of the Himalayas or a close-up of Hugh Jackman’s abs, stick those inspiring ridges where you’ll see them every day: on your computer’s desktop. Starting up to the sight of Hugh’s six-pack may be just the thing to lift you out of your morning blahs.

Share Your Inspirations
“I’d rather be nine people’s favorite thing than a hundred people’s ninth favorite thing.” I had listened to this line from the musical called [title of show] 900 times before I finally had to write a blog post about how it inspired me. As I struggled to describe the impact the show had on my life and work, I uncovered new lessons in it, like how to separate yourself from how other people see you. When you share a blog post, Facebook update or YouTube video about what inspires you, you’re not only helping other people discover a new source of wisdom or courage: You’re likely to come to a new understanding of what helps you soar.

These practices won’t turn you into a digital Buddha, someone impervious to the magnetic appeal of Perez Hilton’s latest headline and Zappo’s latest sale. What they can do is rebalance the scales: to edge you away from a tech life that toggles between relentless offline productivity and mindless online distraction.

“Productivity tools” like computers and smart phones can be transformed into personal touchstones, and “buddy lists” can become support groups. Now that’s what I would have called synergy.

On Oprah.com: What to do on Twitter when you’re getting started

This blog post originally appeared on Oprah.com.

Twitter is a social network that lets you post short messages to share with just your friends or the world. A Twitter message—a “tweet”—is the equivalent of a Facebook status update. But you only have 140 characters to get your point across!

Even if you hate the idea of sharing your own ideas or news online, you can still enjoy Twitter as a voyeur. Lots of people check Twitter every day without posting a single update themselves. So, let’s get started!

Sign Up for an Account
My advice would be to choose the shortest username you can: Most people like to use a version of their real name. For example, my Twitter handle is “awsamuel.”

Find and Follow Twitter Users
An easy way to get started is to click Find People and then use the Find Friends option to scan for anyone in your Gmail, AOL or Yahoo address book who is already on Twitter. Just click Follow next to anyone who is already on Twitter, but don’t click Send Request for those who aren’t—you’ll just end up spamming your friends. You can also find people to follow by browsing Twitter’s suggestions or by following lists of Twitter users (more on that below). It’s fine to follow a few celebrities, but be sure to follow at least some regular people so that you’ll see how other people use Twitter.

Log In
Log in to Twitter.com to see what your friends are tweeting about anytime. Try looking at Twitter while you’re watching your favorite sports event or TV show (your friends might be watching too), if you’ve just heard about a breaking news story (people will be sharing their reactions) or just want to find something interesting to look at (people tend to share lots of links to interesting websites, videos and news stories).

Post a Tweet
Once you’ve been reading other people’s tweets for a few days or weeks, maybe it will be time to try posting a tweet yourself. There’s no right or wrong way to tweet, though some people do get obsessed with how many followers they have and post tweets that they hope will attract more followers. I recommend focusing on using Twitter to connect with the people you care about. Think about your tweets as a way of sharing whatever you want your friends to know about you. Just remember that because Twitter moves so fast, your friends may miss your tweets (people who follow hundreds of people typically see only a tiny fraction of what all those people are posting) and whatever you post will be permanently visible unless you delete it.


A Twitter Glossary

Twitter has its own lingo. Here’s a guide to help you make the most of it!

Become a Follower
These are the people you follow on Twitter—your friends, colleagues, favorite companies and organizations. You’ll see their latest status updates whenever you log in to Twitter.com or check your Twitter client. There will also be people who sign up to read your Twitter updates. You will be notified when someone is following you. If you don’t like the idea of strangers reading your updates, you can check the option to “Protect my tweets” on the account settings page.

Use a Twitter Client
A software program or website that you can use to view, organize or post tweets. Most people find Twitter much more useful and enjoyable if they use a client program like Tweetdeck, which is free for download to PC, Mac or iPhone.

Search Twitter
One way to discover what’s happening on Twitter and find exactly what interests you is to use Twitter’s built-in search engine. Just type in “Red Sox” to see who is tweeting about the big game or “prayer” to see what others have to say.

Make a Mention
A mention is a tweet that references a specific Twitter user or user’s comment by referring to their username, beginning with the @ sign. For example, you’d mention Oprah on Twitter by typing “I am so excited to check out the new @Oprah network.” Or you could send me a public message my mentioning me in your tweet: “Hi @awsamuel, I am trying out Twitter using your tips!”

Send Direct Messages
You can also send messages privately to another Twitter user, though you can’t send a direct message until that person is following you. Just begin your tweet with “D username” (no @ sign). For example, if I follow you, you can send me a direct message by typing “D awsamuel This is a private hello!”

Use Hashtags
Twitter users use hashtags (descriptive keywords that begin with the “#” sign) to categorize tweets and to follow or contribute to conversations on particular topics. You’ll see the hashtag #knit included in tweets about knitting, #oscar used by Oscar® fans exchanging observations during the Academy Awards®. The hashtags #FF and #FollowFriday are used on Fridays, when many people tweet a list of their favorite people to follow. Some conferences and public events even create a special hashtag so you can keep up with news updates and your fellow attendees.

Follow Lists
If you want to know more about a specific topic—say, organic gardening, minor league baseball or photography—Twitter lists are a great way to start. A list of Twitter users is compiled by a Twitter user, usually related to a particular topic. Some of my favorites are gastrobuzz (food), molfamily/green (green living) and anndouglas (I love her parent and parenting list). You can also follow (and unfollow) an entire Twitter list with a single click. Be sure to check out the directory of Twitter lists at Listorious.com.

Avoid Annoying Twitter Spam
Just like email, Twitter now has its share of spammers, so never click on a link from someone you don’t know. Twitter spammers use mentions to lure people in and hack their Twitter accounts. If you get a tweet that seems like spam, just ignore it; client programs like Tweetdeck may also offer you a button to trash or report it as spam.
Overall, Twitter is a fun way to keep up with friends, stay on top of current events and add a little zest to your day. How you use it and how much you use it is up to you. You can follow and stop following anyone at any time—so get out there and make Twitter what you want it to be.

Spice up your dates with technology

The new Italian restaurant in our neighborhood was the perfect place to celebrate our eighth wedding anniversary. We settled into a cozy table for two and turned our attention to the menu. It wouldn’t be easy to decide on our courses: The menu included almost too many enticing options with ingredients like black olives, Jerusalem artichokes and capers. (I will order anything that comes with a sexy-sounding Italian garnish!)

That night, I was torn between the flank steak served on a bed of arugula and the foraged mushroom Arborio risotto. (Are you getting hungry now?) I love risotto, and I know it’s traditionally made with Arborio rice, but on this occasion I couldn’t help musing out loud:

“What is Arborio rice? Is it rice from a place called Arborio? Or is some actual kind of grain?”

Less than a decade ago, couples must have had entire evenings—perhaps entire relationships—destroyed by the pain of waiting for an answer to this kind of pressing question. Your spouse thinks it’s a region, but you think it’s got to be an actual type of rice. Worse yet, he suggests it’s a pointless question and you shouldn’t care about the answer. The next thing you know, you’re arguing over why he has to be such a know-it-all or why you have to devote so much time to useless information. Ultimately, your osso buco gets cold, and someone ends up sleeping on the sofa.

Was Steve Jobs thinking about all those endangered marriages when he drove Apple to create the ultimate date-night instant answer device, the iPhone? With my iPhone in hand, the Arborio dilemma was easily resolved by Wikipedia:

Arborio rice is an Italian short-grain rice. It is named after the town of Arborio in the Po Valley, where it is grown.

“Huh,” Rob replied when I finished reading. (I’ve trained him to make some kind of sound of acknowledgment whenever I say something to him, even if he has no interest in what I’m saying.) Our mystery solved, we were ready to order our meal and crack open the anniversary champagne.

Our delight at diving into the soup of online knowledge turns the Web and the world into our marital playground, never more so than on date night. If you still think date night means dinner and movie, or if the very concept of date night has been lost to the challenge of leaving work or finding a babysitter, it’s time to take a look at how the social Web can help you rediscover the joy (not to mention relationship-saving importance) of spending a night out with your sweetie.

Make a Date-Night Dashboard
“Do you want to go to Topanga?” “Not again.” “Tojo?” “We get Japanese delivered all the time.” “How about the new Judd Apatow movie?” “Might as well wait till it’s out on video.” If your date nights have gotten boxed in by routine, a date-night dashboard can help you find new options. I’ve customized my Google homepage to keep track of date-night possibilities. I subscribe to calendars of upcoming events in our area, updates from bloggers who review new restaurants and announcements of upcoming salsa nights. If we need inspiration for what to do when the babysitter arrives, a quick look at the dashboard can turn up the most appealing options.

Geek Out
“Can you shoot me that image?” Rob drags the cartoon he’s just doodled onto my hard drive, and I drop it into the blog post I’ve just finished. We’ve spent the evening at one of our favorite date-night spots: It’s got a great prawn curry, cozy private booths and WiFi. So if we’ve got a few hours worth of sitting and want to enjoy an activity that’s more interactive than staring side-by-side at a movie screen, we aim for a united geek-out. We sit beside each other so we’re not separated by our laptops and choose an activity we can do together: writing a blog post, making a family DVD, playing a multiplayer game or trying out a few collaborative Web applications. If you share a tech-enabled hobby, a date-night geek-out is a great way to use your computers to explore your creative connection.

Bring Along a Third (or Fourth)
I know that we did enjoy date night before we got our iPhones, but I can’t remember how. An iPhone is like a date-night magnifying glass: It can enlarge your experience, sharpen light into fiery heat or refract giggle-producing distortions. We’ve used our iPhones to snap menus for our collection of egregious copyediting failures, to exchange sarcastic notes about the people at the next table and to tweet adoring love notes midmeal. And yes, a couple of those tweets have provoked our friends to tweet back, “Get a room!”

Play Together
As I’m browsing in an aisle of our favorite bookstore, my phone vibrates. I’ve got a text message from Rob: “Marco!” “Polo!” I type back. After a few rounds of back-and-forth, we’re reunited in the cookbook section, where we giggle and kiss. Shouting might be a more efficient navigational tool, but texting is less obnoxious and a lot more fun. Whether it’s Marco Polo, online Scrabble or a trip to the arcade, a night of digitally enabled gaming is a great way to bring the play back into your relationship.

Look Down
Our date nights aren’t limited to our hometown—or even to nighttime. When we travel together on business, we make a point of reserving a day for the two of us to spend on our own, reconnecting as a couple. During one recent trip to San Francisco, the first item on our agenda was to find a lunch spot that would satisfy our craving for Mexican food. Stepping out of our hotel room, we whipped out our iPhones and strolled slowly down the street while we each did a search for recommended Mexican meals nearby. Looking down at my screen, I navigated to a highly recommended hole-in-the-wall while Rob held onto my elbow so I wouldn’t trip or bump into someone. Fifteen minutes later, we were eating the best tamales of our lives and settling into the bliss of a day uninterrupted by kids or work. Forget gazing into each other’s eyes (at least for a few minutes): Looking down at your iPhone or PDA can help you find an outstanding meal or attraction that will turn a day out into a lasting memory.

Look Up
After our Mexican lunch in San Francisco, we decided to walk over to the Castro, but it was a good distance and we wanted our walk to cover an interesting route. Once again, our iPhones saved the day. With Yelp.com—which maps nearby restaurants, stores and attractions— we were easily able to figure out which street would have the most boutiques of interest to browse as we meandered toward the Castro. Once we’d chosen our route, we actually (gasp!) put our iPhones away so that we could stroll hand-in-hand and take in the sights. And a good thing we actually looked up or we would have missed the ice cream shop with the sandwich board advertising flavors like salted caramel, honey lavender and balsamic strawberry. It was only after we were happily enjoying our cones that we noticed the proud display of magazine articles that (deservedly!) praised the Bi-Rite Creamery as one of America’s 10 best ice cream shops.

Whether you’re looking for an evening that busts you out of a longtime rut or for a playful night out with a new beau, your tech toolbox can set you up for a great date. Just be sure to put that phone away when it’s time for your good-night kiss.

This post originally appeared on Oprah.com.

On Oprah.com: Great dates that take your marriage online

The new Italian restaurant in our neighborhood was the perfect place to celebrate our eighth wedding anniversary. We settled into a cozy table for two and turned our attention to the menu. It wouldn’t be easy to decide on our courses: The menu included almost too many enticing options with ingredients like black olives, Jerusalem artichokes and capers. (I will order anything that comes with a sexy-sounding Italian garnish!)

That night, I was torn between the flank steak served on a bed of arugula and the foraged mushroom Arborio risotto. (Are you getting hungry now?) I love risotto, and I know it’s traditionally made with Arborio rice, but on this occasion I couldn’t help musing out loud:

“What is Arborio rice? Is it rice from a place called Arborio? Or is some actual kind of grain?”

Less than a decade ago, couples must have had entire evenings—perhaps entire relationships—destroyed by the pain of waiting for an answer to this kind of pressing question. Your spouse thinks it’s a region, but you think it’s got to be an actual type of rice. Worse yet, he suggests it’s a pointless question and you shouldn’t care about the answer. The next thing you know, you’re arguing over why he has to be such a know-it-all or why you have to devote so much time to useless information. Ultimately, your osso buco gets cold, and someone ends up sleeping on the sofa.

Was Steve Jobs thinking about all those endangered marriages when he drove Apple to create the ultimate date-night instant answer device, the iPhone? With my iPhone in hand, the Arborio dilemma was easily resolved by Wikipedia:

Arborio rice is an Italian short-grain rice. It is named after the town of Arborio in the Po Valley, where it is grown.

“Huh,” Rob replied when I finished reading. (I’ve trained him to make some kind of sound of acknowledgment whenever I say something to him, even if he has no interest in what I’m saying.) Our mystery solved, we were ready to order our meal and crack open the anniversary champagne.

Our delight at diving into the soup of online knowledge turns the Web and the world into our marital playground, never more so than on date night. If you still think date night means dinner and movie, or if the very concept of date night has been lost to the challenge of leaving work or finding a babysitter, it’s time to take a look at how the social Web can help you rediscover the joy (not to mention relationship-saving importance) of spending a night out with your sweetie.

6 Ways to Use Your Tech Toolbox for Love

Make a Date-Night Dashboard
“Do you want to go to Topanga?” “Not again.” “Tojo?” “We get Japanese delivered all the time.” “How about the new Judd Apatow movie?” “Might as well wait till it’s out on video.” If your date nights have gotten boxed in by routine, a date-night dashboard can help you find new options. I’ve customized my Google homepage to keep track of date-night possibilities. I subscribe to calendars of upcoming events in our area, updates from bloggers who review new restaurants and announcements of upcoming salsa nights. If we need inspiration for what to do when the babysitter arrives, a quick look at the dashboard can turn up the most appealing options.

Geek Out
“Can you shoot me that image?” Rob drags the cartoon he’s just doodled onto my hard drive, and I drop it into the blog post I’ve just finished. We’ve spent the evening at one of our favorite date-night spots: It’s got a great prawn curry, cozy private booths and WiFi. So if we’ve got a few hours worth of sitting and want to enjoy an activity that’s more interactive than staring side-by-side at a movie screen, we aim for a united geek-out. We sit beside each other so we’re not separated by our laptops and choose an activity we can do together: writing a blog post, making a family DVD, playing a multiplayer game or trying out a few collaborative Web applications. If you share a tech-enabled hobby, a date-night geek-out is a great way to use your computers to explore your creative connection.

Bring Along a Third (or Fourth)
I know that we did enjoy date night before we got our iPhones, but I can’t remember how. An iPhone is like a date-night magnifying glass: It can enlarge your experience, sharpen light into fiery heat or refract giggle-producing distortions. We’ve used our iPhones to snap menus for our collection of egregious copyediting failures, to exchange sarcastic notes about the people at the next table and to tweet adoring love notes midmeal. And yes, a couple of those tweets have provoked our friends to tweet back, “Get a room!”

Play Together
As I’m browsing in an aisle of our favorite bookstore, my phone vibrates. I’ve got a text message from Rob: “Marco!” “Polo!” I type back. After a few rounds of back-and-forth, we’re reunited in the cookbook section, where we giggle and kiss. Shouting might be a more efficient navigational tool, but texting is less obnoxious and a lot more fun. Whether it’s Marco Polo, online Scrabble or a trip to the arcade, a night of digitally enabled gaming is a great way to bring the play back into your relationship.

Look Down
Our date nights aren’t limited to our hometown—or even to nighttime. When we travel together on business, we make a point of reserving a day for the two of us to spend on our own, reconnecting as a couple. During one recent trip to San Francisco, the first item on our agenda was to find a lunch spot that would satisfy our craving for Mexican food. Stepping out of our hotel room, we whipped out our iPhones and strolled slowly down the street while we each did a search for recommended Mexican meals nearby. Looking down at my screen, I navigated to a highly recommended hole-in-the-wall while Rob held onto my elbow so I wouldn’t trip or bump into someone. Fifteen minutes later, we were eating the best tamales of our lives and settling into the bliss of a day uninterrupted by kids or work. Forget gazing into each other’s eyes (at least for a few minutes): Looking down at your iPhone or PDA can help you find an outstanding meal or attraction that will turn a day out into a lasting memory.

Look Up
After our Mexican lunch in San Francisco, we decided to walk over to the Castro, but it was a good distance and we wanted our walk to cover an interesting route. Once again, our iPhones saved the day. With Yelp.com—which maps nearby restaurants, stores and attractions— we were easily able to figure out which street would have the most boutiques of interest to browse as we meandered toward the Castro. Once we’d chosen our route, we actually (gasp!) put our iPhones away so that we could stroll hand-in-hand and take in the sights. And a good thing we actually looked up or we would have missed the ice cream shop with the sandwich board advertising flavors like salted caramel, honey lavender and balsamic strawberry. It was only after we were happily enjoying our cones that we noticed the proud display of magazine articles that (deservedly!) praised the Bi-Rite Creamery as one of America’s 10 best ice cream shops.

Whether you’re looking for an evening that busts you out of a longtime rut or for a playful night out with a new beau, your tech toolbox can set you up for a great date. Just be sure to put that phone away when it’s time for your good-night kiss.

This post originally appeared on Oprah.com.

Now on Oprah.com: Spice Up Your Dates With Technology

I’m thrilled that today marked the publication of my first blog post for Oprah.com, Spice Up Your Dates with Technology. As a contributor to this site, I’ll show how you can use technology to “live your best life”, in Oprah’s words. Keep an eye out for upcoming stories on my profile page, which will highlight different ways to make meaningful use of technology in your life and relationships.

My first post shares six ideas for how technology can make for better dates. One of the tips I share is to create a date night dashboard. Here’s a peek at what mine looks like:Screenshot of iGoogle page set up as date night dashboard

I hope you’ll check out the story on Oprah.com, and share your own ideas for making love with technology.