Wedding Toasts and Kurt Vonnegut Don’t Mix

by admin on November 18, 2010

I’ve debated a while whether to submit this to you or not. I finally decided to, because the story is just too hilarious not to share, and because the unfortunate denizen of etiquette hell just so truly did not understand what he had done wrong, that no one, then or now, could be mad at him.

I’ll call him “Sean”. Sean is a friend of mine, and he is the best friend of “Jake”, so when Jake got married to “Julia”, naturally he was the best man. I’m also friends with both Jake and Julia, so I was at their wedding reception.

At the time, Sean was a graduate student in philosophy, and he’s long been famous in our circle of friends for being absent-minded and for having a decidedly off-kilter way of looking at things, which may explain what came next.

As he stands up to give his toast, he starts out by saying that he had difficulty composing it, because although he and Jake had had many great times together, he couldn’t think of anything that he could say in mixed company, har har. People laugh politely.

So, he pulls out a copy of Shakespeare’s “Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind” and reads it dramatically. For those unfamiliar with the poem, it’s a cynical diatribe against man’s inhumanity to man. Not exactly happy wedding material, especially since it contains the line “Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly”. He finishes this poem by saying that when life is cold, the bride and groom should cling to each other. Ok. A little weird, but ok.

However, at this point, it goes completely off the rails. He says he has one more example for the bride and groom. He then begins to recount, in agonizing detail, the plot of the Kurt Vonnegut short story “Welcome to the Monkey House”. I’ll let you look up the plot of the story for yourself if you don’t know it; I had never heard of the story before that day. To keep matters much shorter than Sean did, I’ll just say that I have never heard a collective gasp louder than the one that went up when Sean said the phrase “and he rapes her”. I kept my face in my hands, cringing, for most of it; at one point, I heard an irate bride’s relative at the next table say, “Who is this guy?” People were shifting around and muttering and giggling nervously; through it all, Sean seemed totally unaware of the effect he was having.

When the summarization was finally over, Sean basically says that his point was that no one in the short story understood sex, love, and procreation, but that Jake and Julia did understand the proper meaning of these things. This came across as a thinly veiled reference to the fact that Julia was about five months pregnant.

Sean later asked people how they liked his speech, and seemed confused and surprised when people stammered and hedged and (in the case of some friends) tried gently to inform him that it wasn’t quite appropriate. 1117-10

{ 62 comments… read them below or add one }

David November 18, 2010 at 5:46 am

“Welcome to the Monkey House”? How could anyone think that story was appropriate material for a wedding toast, even if they had an off-kilter way of looking at things?

Hopefully Jake and Julia are able to look back on that toast and laugh.

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josie November 18, 2010 at 6:21 am

Whatever happened to the simple concept of raising the glass to the couple and saying “We wish you a lifetime of happiness”. When it doubt, keep it short and sweet.

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Simone November 18, 2010 at 6:57 am

Seriously? There was someone who seriously thought that suicide, sexual numbness, and rape were good foundations for a WEDDING speech? Really? And it’s not like there’s nothing in Shakespeare that’s romantic, you know. But nooooooooo, let’s go for the darkness…*forehead smack*

I am wondering why, if Sean was as clueless but well meaning as he is presented, no-one had the forethought to check his speech beforehand.

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Ali November 18, 2010 at 7:33 am

You know what, if you don’t know what to say at a toast, don’t keep talking. Yeesh.

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Bint November 18, 2010 at 7:47 am

Less hilarious than just horrifying. Mentioning rape in a wedding toast! If I’d been the bride I’d have been so upset, for me and my guests.

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Bint November 18, 2010 at 7:52 am

PS If Sean ‘so truly did not understand what he had done wrong’ (Aiee!!) I’d definitely be keeping my distance for what that says about him! Frankly he’s incredibly lucky he didn’t get punched or screamed at afterwards.

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NotCinderell November 18, 2010 at 7:55 am

Oddly enough, there is a story in the collection that contains “Monkey House” that would be perfect to reference in a wedding toast: A semi-autobiographical tale about a young soldier who goes AWOL when he learns that his childhood sweetheart is engaged to someone else. He successfully persuades her to call off the engagement and marry him instead.

Monkey House is a bizarre story: it’s anti-love, anti-child, and anti-woman. Anyone who would reference it at a wedding is someone who was more interested in showing off his literary chops than picking event-appropriate material.

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Wheelchair Bling November 18, 2010 at 8:06 am

After reading some of these stories, I’m starting to think that weddings need to include a sergeant-at-arms, with a shepherd’s crook like you see in old cartoons, who can drag inappropriate people offstage!

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Tracey November 18, 2010 at 8:43 am

Wow. Just wow. I think my mouth fell open while reading that. What a strange speech! I guess they knew he was a wild card before he spoke, but WTH was that guy thinking? I’m guessing he’s not married and he could be a touch cynical about love. And that is just wrong to reference the bride’s pregnancy like that! Strange. I have been to a reception with an uncomfortable drunk best man toast. Awkward indeed. Doesn’t sound like alcohol is to blame in this story at all!

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Giles November 18, 2010 at 8:49 am

And this is why none of my friends are liberal arts graduates ;)

I still think the worst/best toast I’ve ever seen was at my niece’s wedding. She’s military and usually not at liberty to discuss her work. Her best man (her husband chose his sister as the maid of honour) got drunk before his speech and started talking about the great times they’d had on a classified mission in Egypt to a room of about two hundred people. Thankfully, the other groomsmen got him down before he got assassinated…

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DGS November 18, 2010 at 8:54 am

…Head hits desk…Poor Jake and Julia. And, poor Sean, who sounds like a pretty socially awkward guy, as he a) has no clue why neither “Welcome to the Monkey House” nor that particular work of Shakespeare are at all appropriate for a wedding reception (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” immediately comes to mind as a much more appropriate recitation) and b) didn’t seem to notice what kind of an effect he was having on his befuddled audience. Did anyone talk to Sean about this after the fact?

My personal rule for wedding toasts, having now been matron of honor to both my dearest girl friends, is: 1) Keep it short and sweet; 2) Share one amusing, PG anecdote that is not filled with inside jokes and that everyone could relate to easily; 3) Praise the character of the bride and reflect on why the groom is a great match for the bride; and 4) Wish the couple a lifetime of happiness and 5) Get off the stage and let everyone resume socializing, eating dinner and otherwise, enjoying themselves.

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ashleighlauren7 November 18, 2010 at 9:05 am

I realize that you can’t diagnose someone without meeting them, but is Sean okay? This story seems so blatantly inappropriate, it makes me wonder if Sean may have some social anxiety/ASD type issue that makes it difficult for him to behave appropriately in public.

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Colleen November 18, 2010 at 9:09 am

Simone, That’s what I was thinking. If they knew he was quirky, then either check the speech or know going in that it isn’t going to be traditional. And unfortunately, some people knew Sean and while stunned could attribute it to his nature. The other guests were just blindsided and uncomfortable.

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bookworm November 18, 2010 at 9:13 am

Okay, but if Jake and Julia already knew this guy for a couple of years, don’t you think they would have expected him to be a little left of center for the wedding? I say, let the married couple be embarrassed about this if they choose to be, but it’s not the responsibility (or business) of other guests to tell the speech-giver where they went wrong, especially if no one else had anything to say.

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Daisy November 18, 2010 at 9:23 am

When my daughter and son-in-law were married, the groom’s best man was his best friend, a sardonic Irishman who fancied himself as a literary genius. His toast consisted of a 15 minute rant on why the groom was too young to be losing his freedom, how hard he had tried to change his mind, and how he’d always be there for son-in-law once things ran aground. He ended with “to the Bride and Groom”. There was complete, shocked silence in the room. Fortunately the musicians leaped into the breech and began to play. Talk about awkward! Since this was a wedding breakfast, we were only serving champagne, but I think the BM had tanked up on his own. For the record: the happy couple have been married for 20 years, have a 10 year old son, and are very happy. The Best Man? Not so much.

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Elle November 18, 2010 at 9:53 am

There are good passages from Vonnegut for wedding toasts. “Welcome to the Monekyhouse” is not one of them. (His essay “You Are Not Enough People” would be a good choice)

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winter November 18, 2010 at 10:13 am

Once again, when will people learn that a wedding toast is not that big of deal and perhaps best NOT done at all, especially if you are even the least bit uncertain about the best man/matron of honor’s sense of etiquette/humor/maturity, etc.?

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Chelsey November 18, 2010 at 10:55 am

I’ve known a lot of people who majored in philosophy and they do tend to have an off-kilter view on things (particularly morals, laws, and etiquette…as we can see). The ones I knew (I won’t speak for all philosophy majors, so if you disagree with me, spare me the whine-fest because I offended you or whoever it is you know who’s in philosophy) would generally do things like this because they want to show people how intelligent they are by either interpreting something in a way no one would have thought to (usually because it’s ridiculous) or using that interpretation to relate to a real-life event in a way most people wouldn’t think to. This is quite often the reaction that happens when they do that. =P So I’m not sure whether to assume his toast was a complete disaster because of the “off-kilter thinking” or because he just has no common sense. I’d say it’s a mixture of both.

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Kat November 18, 2010 at 11:29 am

Poor dude. I can’t even criticize him, I just feel bad for him. He probably thought that was a clever toast. And I thought it was bad when our best man started making sex puns about my new husband and his XBox! (They were hilarious.)

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Just Laura November 18, 2010 at 11:31 am

I have only three bits to add to the already excellent responses:
Giles, graduating with a degree in Philosophy and a degree in Liberal Arts are not the same thing. Just so you know for the future.
Chelsey, since I was 3 hours shy of a second major in Religion/Philosophy, I won’t take offense. ;) But you’re right – many in my Existentialism class were definitely different in their views on etiquette (mostly feeling it was a false and self-imposed limitation to human nature… I’ll spare you the rest).
Simone makes a great point – always a good idea to check with a person giving a toast beforehand, just to make certain everyone’s on the same proverbial page.

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Calliope November 18, 2010 at 12:07 pm

I love this story. I do feel sorry for the bride and groom, but also for Sean, who sounds like one of those intelligent-but-clueless people I tend to like. It speaks well of the OP and her friends that none of them were mad at him.

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Xtina November 18, 2010 at 12:50 pm

After reading so many stories of wedding toasts gone wrong on this site (this one is particularly heinous!), it makes me glad that we don’t do those in my family. Problem solved.

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Elizabeth November 18, 2010 at 12:58 pm

Wow. . .
@winter- I have to agree.
Most people go off on a whole speech when it is only suppose to be a toast. At my SIL’s wedding her FIL actually called everyone out on it during his. “I thought we were only suppose to give a toast, and everyone so far has given such long speeches. . . Forgive me, I am not prepared for the same.”
At my wedding, most of the speech toasts went well, but for my FIL’s. I just want to state I LOVE HIM TO DEATH. He has never been too supportive of my husband’s career choice (in video games), and add that it took forever and my husband wasn’t getting any work in the field he spent so much on school for. Well, he gets a job a month before the wedding, a really good job in field. FIL’s “toast” was an apology to my husband for his lack of faith/congrats on the awesome new job. I was mentioned briefly at the end. I’ll be honest, it hurt a little to be the afterthought in what I would assume would be a speech about marriage.

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Louise November 18, 2010 at 1:41 pm

I’m guilty of laughing while reading this post. It’s just too surreal. There’s quirky, and then there’s amalgamating depressing Shakespeare poetry and “Welcome to the Monkey House” in a toast.

“Everyone will turn their backs on you, so don’t turn your backs on each other. But don’t worry, Julia, Jake knows rape is wrong. Salud!”

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Wink-n-Smile November 18, 2010 at 1:56 pm

As a general rule, something that was first published in Playboy is NOT appropriate, not only for mixed company, but for a wedding toast.

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Wink-n-Smile November 18, 2010 at 2:04 pm

I have, in the past, heard the horrified expression, “Oh, my God, he’s a philosophy major!” I always chalked it up to intramural competition between the various majors, and thought it was silly. Truly, I did.

Interestingly enough, it was always spoken by the friends of young women who were dating the said philosophy major, and who wanted to break it up before their girlfriend suffered irreparable social harm.

I always thought they were being silly. I don’t believe in painting people with such a broad brush.

Now, if they’d said, “Oh, my God, it’s Sean, again,” I would completely agree. Sollipsism may be a valid philosophy, but it’s not an effective way of life, and I pity the woman who dates this man.

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Debra November 18, 2010 at 2:25 pm

Sadly, this reminds me of the MINISTER who married us. She was from my husband’s church, which I had been attending for about a year and a half at that point. My husband and I also had a 1 year old son together when we got married. I’d asked the minister not to do the short sermon that is common in our denomination, but she did anyway. And while talking about marriage, she mentioned the physical aspect. Which she felt the need to point out that he and I had obviously gotten that worked out prior as we have a son.

No one blinked an eye. Except me. My cheeks STILL go red thinking about it.

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LeeLee88 November 18, 2010 at 3:33 pm

I was once in a wedding where the Best Man’s speech consisted of a “period of silence” to remember those relatives who had passed before us. That was it. No “Congratulations”, no “Best Wishes”, nothing. Just standing there awkwardly until he sat down and said, “Oh, I’m done.” And this guy was the groom’s brother. I thought that was pretty bad, but this… this blows me away. Words cannot express… :-O :-X That poor couple.

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PrincessSimmi November 18, 2010 at 4:14 pm

I was thinking of using the below poem in a speech at a wedding and I was wondering (because I’m one of those exceptionally odd people that doesn’t quite get it sometimes) if anyone had any thoughts on appropriateness? Yes/no? It’s an old Scottish poem. I will be adapting it to the couple as opposed to the one person this refers to.

May the best you have ever seen
Be the worst you will ever see
May a mouse never leave your girnal
With a tear drop in his eye
May you always keep hale and hearty
Till you are old enough to die
May you always be just as happy
As we wish you always to be

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NotCinderell November 18, 2010 at 4:19 pm

Wink-N-Smile, a lot of great short stories were first published in Playboy.

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Allie November 18, 2010 at 4:44 pm

Sean sounds like a pedantic bonehead to me, but since he is the groom’s best friend, one can only assume that the groom likes pedantic boneheads.

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Chocobo November 18, 2010 at 4:53 pm

I don’t think this man is mentally unstable or anything. Most of the time I don’t think that almost all the hellions immortalized on this website are actually mentally deranged. Sometimes people are just sort of weird, without any medicalization. Which is why we love them! But that doesn’t always make them the best choice for certain roles/situations.

One thing that consistently baffles me about these wedding stories (and I agree with Simone here), is that people know what their not-so-/loved ones are like, and yet still choose them for roles they almost certainly will fail. It doesn’t seem like this was completely unexpected (just like a hypothetical always-nasty SIL who — surprise! — is still nasty in her wedding toast). If everyone knows that Sean is clueless/SIL hates the Bride, WHY would you give them that responsibility, and furthermore, WHY would you not check up on them if you do?

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Sharon November 18, 2010 at 5:08 pm

I will meet his deep, profound quote with another deep profound quote:

“Good grief, Charlie Brown!” (Charles Schultz)

I think that pretty much covers it.

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jen November 18, 2010 at 5:20 pm

I was picturing my own reaction while reading this. I’m one of those people who laughs helplessly when horribly awkward things happen. I would have probably had to leave the room had I been at that wedding.

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SouthernSugar November 18, 2010 at 5:45 pm

This story just about had me *headdesk*ing myself into oblivion. If you know your best man has a tendency toward … this sort of obliviousness, please, for the sake of everyone who might have to listen to him, either proof his toast yourself, get someone you trust to proof his toast, or don’t ask him to do a toast at all.

And I have to say, as someone married to a man with a degree in philosophy, there are more than a few philosophy majors who are perfectly aware of how to behave in polite society.

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AS November 18, 2010 at 6:02 pm

All I could do is laugh at it. I am glad some other posters laughed too – so I am not the only awkward person out here!

It seems this person was some sort of a nerd who probably had the weirdest way of putting things in perspective that no one else would understand. He seems to have had no clue that this was socially awkward, though I think it is not too hard to pull in more appropriate references and be less over-the-top (heck – a good researcher knows how to present his/her subject to the public). I am a science graduate, and I have seen my share of socially awkward scientists (some of them quite funny if you get what they are saying); but I haven’t seen anyone who thinks pulling in “rape” and such terms during a wedding to be appropriate (because I haven’t seen a Liberal arts major, but I don’t think all are that way).

Kudos to the bride and groom to let him make the toast and for not letting him ruin their day. I hope they can have a laugh now when they think of it.

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QueenofAllThings November 18, 2010 at 6:46 pm

@PrincessSimmi -

Pardon me, I believe my kilt is showing… My husband read me Robbie Burns at our rehearsal, and we were supposed to have the pipes at our wedding (but the piper went on a bender and never showed …) . It’s a lovely poem, but you’ll need to explain the mouse and the girnal bit to me – don’t remember that bit ….

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Skoffin November 18, 2010 at 8:02 pm

He sounds to me like one of those types who fancies themself as an ‘intellectual’, who likes to push past reasonable bounds in a show of how open and superior they are. They think they are being grand, but really they are being obnoxious and making everyone else awkward. A lot of the time I believe they do these things while knowing full well no one else likes it, then they have the nerve to act as if they are put out and everyone else is just being difficult.

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madame-mim November 18, 2010 at 8:06 pm

@Giles – Easy, tiger. A liberal arts education is, in part, intended to help one perceive the connections that exist between different realms of knowledge and experience in order to become a better citizen of the world. Apparently there are some major cues that this Sean character missed in that department!

I must say, I feel much less sorry for myself about the cringe-worthy toast at my own wedding after reading this story.

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Hal November 18, 2010 at 8:18 pm

Here it is again, folks. If you never have had, or attended, a formal dinner party don’t start with a wedding reception. Many people, and nice ones at that, don’t know the rules of behavior at such things. These gatherings are meant to be quiet affairs. Any toasts are spontaneous. There need be no toasts at all. Attention grabbing is out.
Every guest is expected to contribute to his fellow guests’ good time. Be on time. Be properly dressed. Behave. If anyone reading this is starting to rebel at these rules, don’t have, or attend, a formal reception. There is nothing wrong with a party at the lake or the beach, or the backyard, instead. Have a BBQ. Be sure your guests are not expected to sit quietly and listen if they are not used to it. Good hosts do not “set up” their guests by putting them in situations in which they might stumble.

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TheBardess November 18, 2010 at 9:29 pm

As a philosophy major (and editor at my college’s philosophy journal) I would like to apologize here and now on behalf of all my fellow philosophers. I swear to you, we are not all like this! Seriously, the vast majority of us are perfectly capable of functioning in normal society, and would never DREAM of making a wedding toast like this (granted, we might make some really bad philosophy pun and then wonder why everybody else didn’t get it, but that would be about the worst ;) ).

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PrincessSimmi November 18, 2010 at 9:51 pm

@QueenOfAllThings:

‘May a mouse never leave your girnal with a tear drop in it’s eye’ means ‘may a mouse never go hungry at your house’… sort of. A girnal is a grain bin or food bin, and what it basically means is that if there’s no food in the girnal the mouse would cry. So, overall, the poem is wishing them happiness, a long life, and plenty of food.

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Elizabeth Bunting November 18, 2010 at 10:18 pm

Dear Hal: I am waiting for the shower of abuse you will receive for even suggesting such a thing. As one who agrees with you, I received a great deal of verbal abuse from those who thought I was just being a snob when I said that people who are unaccustomed to formal gatherings would be better to have an informal wedding. Interesting – I am awaiting the responses with intense interest.

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David November 18, 2010 at 10:57 pm

@NotCinderell;

You are right that some great short stories first saw the light of day in Playboy, but I’m sure that not many of them are appropriate for a wedding toast.

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Simone November 18, 2010 at 11:09 pm

@ Princess Simmi – OK, from context, I’m guessing that a “girnal” is a house, or a kitchen or a table or something, and we’re hoping that there is always food there (hence the mouse won’t be disappointed – not that the mouse’s disappointment is the point, if you know what I mean)? To the internet!

Other than that slight puzzlement it sounds like a lovely toast and should I ever be required to give a toast at a Scottish wedding I may use it (hope you don’t mind). My favourite toast came from my very elderly neighbour, who would wish for “A roof over your head, food on the table, a glass of good wine, and friends to share it with”.

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Simone November 18, 2010 at 11:11 pm

Aha! Apparently a girnal is a storage chest for food (possibly specifically grains…)

My inner nerd is happy now…

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Billie November 18, 2010 at 11:41 pm

@Queen of of All Things and PrincessSimmi
“May a mouse never leave your girnal / With a tear drop in his eye”

I think this is a wish that your pantry/grain bin/root cellar/other food storage device will always have something in it (a wish for prosperity perhaps), because if the mouse left it with a tear in his eye, it would be because it was empty.

Which in itself is an off-kilter take on something – “we must be doing something right in our lives, the vermin are always happy!”

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Billie November 18, 2010 at 11:43 pm

A question for all those saying if the best man can’t make a ‘proper’ speech, find a new best man.

I thought the idea of choosing a best man was that it was your best friend and supporter – ‘the best man you know’, not ‘the best person to make a speech and give the right impression for everyone else’. Is this incorrect?

Are you putting on a theatre performance, or getting married?

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Alexa November 19, 2010 at 12:33 am

I’m seeing a lot of judgement against Sean. I think people are missing Sean’s intended juxtaposition. From your perspective, what he was talking about is inappropriate, but from his standpoint he’s talking about how special marriage is in this awful world and how different the couple’s relationship is. Did he choose poor examples? Sure. But Sean may has Asperger’s or some other problem that makes it hard to read cues from others. It’s hard to understand why something that doesn’t offend you at all offends other people.

Have a little sympathy. Don’t talk about this guy like he’s a future serial killer or doesn’t understand right from wrong enough to know not to walk up and stab someone. That’s cruel. Most likely he is just a harmless, socially awkward person and he needs the support of his friends, not people treating him like a monster.

Don’t use the rules of etiquette as justification for intolerance. There’s nothing cool or polite about that.

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Marfy November 19, 2010 at 2:39 am

This reminds me of the incredibly embarrassing and inappropriate “poem” one of my ex-husband’s groomsmen composed and read aloud at our rehearsal dinner, in the course of which he made rather thinly veiled referrences to having overheard the ex and me having sex during a weekend a bunch of us spent at his beach house. My parents, my fiance’s parents, and numerous other elderly relatives were in attendance, including my great uncle, a retired state senator. You could’ve heard a pin drop. My ex thought it was hilarious, which may explain why we are no longer married.

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