Our theme for the month of March is “Ask the post calvin.” We’re taking on questions submitted by readers and offering our best advice.

Dear the post calvin,

I dated someone about three or four years ago and haven’t dated anyone since. This said ex-boyfriend introduced me to a lot of TV shows and movies, so I find myself occasionally bringing him up in conversation. But I’ve noticed that no one else talks about their exes around me.

What’s the statute of limitations on bringing up a person, especially an ex? Should I just fudge it and say my friend introduced me to Buffy the Vampire Slayer? How much does this matter, really?

Sincerely,
Not Living in the Past

Dear NLITP,

I think there are two questions in play here. First: when is it okay to bring up an ex? My answer, at its simplest, is never. Now, I’m quite sure that I don’t follow my own advice on this matter—I’ve done it. But there are two unsavory reactions I can think of that people might have when you do bring up an ex. You might not intend for the mention to come off this way, but it could seem like…

1) You’re looking for attention. Depending on how the relationship ended, your friends and acquaintances might feel awkward hearing you mention an ex. Does NLITP want to have a conversation about this ex? Why did they bring the ex up? Are they phishing for something? Especially since you’re single right now, it could seem like you’re trying to invite them to a pity party.

2) You’re bragging. Mentioning the ex could feel like a name-drop, a reminder of your perhaps illustrious past dating life. No one needs that reminder, even if your ex was really great.

You note that no one else talks about exes around you. That’s probably a good sign that it’s not an interesting topic of conversation in your group. There’s a time and a place for a good “let’s reminisce slash complain about our exes” tea session, but you’ll know it when you hear it. It usually involves a beverage stronger than tea and someone else’s recent breakup. But honestly—you’re three or four years out from the relationship. Unless you’re still up every night pining for him and are planning a grand rom-com style gesture, it’s time to let it go.

This leads, then, to the other part of your question. If you shouldn’t mention an ex, to whom do you attribute your love for Buffy? This is the more interesting dilemma, I think. Are we required to cite the sources of our textual preferences? To give our compliments to the chefs who influenced our taste in media?

I don’t think so, and let me tell you why: You are what you eat.

Maybe this is cynical, and maybe some aspiring artists would disagree, and maybe I’m betraying my English teacher sensibility, but I believe there aren’t many truly original ideas left out there, at least in the realm of art and media. And that’s okay with me because now we get to play around in the sandbox. The centuries of texts we humans have created are nothing if not referential. In fact, this cause and effect, action and reaction nature of literature is one of the things I remember getting the most excited about in my high school and college lit classes. Romantics were a reaction to the Enlightenment and Modernists to Romantics. We are all simply a sum of the things we’ve consumed, a restaurant review of our most recent meal. It’d be exhausting and unartistic to tape the ingredient list to the back of every book we write, every symphony we compose, every canvas we touch. Imagine if everyone cited Shakespeare when using one of his words or character tropes or storylines. A single paragraph would be riddled with footnotes. How many hip hop/R&B artists have been influenced by The Harlem Renaissance writers? Should every track have to list “ft. the ideas of Langston Hughes?”

It’s to be expected that we sample and remix when creating a work or even tinkering with our personal media taste. We sprinkle some Cheryl Strayed Wild into our elementary school love for My Side of the Mountain and let our high school obsession with Death Cab for Cutie simmer and reduce into a more nuanced appreciation for The National. Who cares where that all comes from? It all goes into your soup pot and becomes your secret recipe.

So what’s the statute of limitations on mentioning who introduced you to your new favorite show? A couple of weeks, tops. If a text has made its way into your bloodstream, it’s yours to keep.

These ideas were borrowed, of course—from T.S. Eliot (“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different”) and the Greek poet and Nobel Laureate George Seferis (“Don’t ask who’s influenced me. A lion is made up of the lambs he’s digested, and I’ve been reading all my life”).

Happy eating.

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