My one goal for 2014 is to pass the “pillow test” even more often than in 2013. If that happens (call it the pursuit of a New Year’s resolution, if you will), everything else will fall into place to the greatest extent that I’m able to control.

These days I tend to question everything. “Happy New Year” is innocuous enough, right? I assure you I’m not going to be grinchy about “HAPPY NEW YEAR” any more than I was when I got a slew of genuinely appreciated expressions of “happy birthday” on a day that was decidedly not so.

But, for better or for worse, I’ve got a pretty strong literal streak in me and therefore there is a part of me that resists the “pressure” embedded in such directives, even if they are entirely well-intentioned. I call them directives, because sometimes “happy (fill in the blank occasion or milestone)” comes off as a command. Of course, I would love to be happy all the time, but sometimes happiness is not the genuine response to a situation or even the ideal goal to have.

I recall a plane flight home from San Francisco in 2002 when I found myself sitting next to a painter from Wales ( who was wrapping up an extended visit to explore the art scenes in several major American cities. He made the interesting observation that Americans seemed to be very fun-centered in their conversations with him. That is, the go-to well-wish on his travels was “have fun” and the go-to inquiry as to how the trip was going was “are you having fun?” He found this interesting because fun as a measurement of things going well was not what he was used to; I found the observation interesting because while his scrutiny made total sense to me, I had never thought much about these benign figures of speech.

So it goes with “happy” with me at times. When I think about my goals for 2014 they involve personal growth, interactions with others and forward motion in my career. What percentage of my waking hours will be spent “happy?” I can’t say, nor do I want to use that as the yardstick for measuring how well I lived my life. I’m not saying that being UNhappy is inherently positive in any way, mind you. But if a genuine challenge arises that demands attention, doing what’s right is not necessarily going to increase my “happiness.” I surely would have had a “happier” birthday if instead of processing what happened in Newtown a year before and grieving dear Ana and the other victims I had spent the day playing video games, getting drunk and eating cheesecake.

To an extent, maybe it’s just semantics over the word “happy” (substitute something like “peaceful” or “mindful” or other such words sure to provoke some eye-rolls and maybe I’d feel a bit differently). A big part of this is that (as anyone who is a regular reader will have gleaned by now) I always prefer well-wishes that are empowering. Sometimes I say “good luck” to a student or loved one about to perform, but I much prefer some variation on “you are well-prepared, so relax and enjoy yourself.” There is enough in life that is uncertain and out of our control that I like to focus on validating people for taking command over the things within their grasp.

This is where the “pillow test” comes in. This is a phrase I use to refer simply to a concept that Marty Khan ( addresses with some frequency. As well-known as he may be for his business success on behalf of creative musicians and his hard-assed bluntness, he is an uncompromisingly moral person. The “pillow” in question refers to our sense of peace and integrity as we lay our heads down at night. When our head hits the pillow, can we relax, knowing that we lived in harmony with our morals and beliefs? If the answer is yes, all the more tangible things inevitably are folded into that, whether they relate to work, family, health, community or whatever else. If the answer is no, then what good are the external spoils? I’d love to be handed a million dollars (heck, even $100 would be nice) but I’m not aware of a dollar amount that can buy salvation from not liking the person looking back at you when you look in the mirror. Money can certainly rent a good deal of distraction from that, but a platinum-laced pillowcase won’t make it any easier to pass the pillow test.

As such it feels good that as I look back at 2013 I passed the pillow test more often than not. Was it a “happy” or “fun” year? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Did I accomplish every tangible goal on my list? No, though I also accomplished many that were not even on my radar at the end of 2012. Did I say the right thing at the right time to my wife and daughters at every opportunity? No, but I sure tried, and along the way I also slayed (or at least critically wounded) some demons that few others even realize have been chomping at my rump.

I TRULY hope everybody reading this has a very happy new year. But I hope for a lot of things that are out of our control (I also hope that there’s not too much snow in CT this winter, that Roger Federer wins Wimbledon again, that I can find a place to get fresh okra before the summer, etc.). What IS in your control on a milestone day or any other day is to live in harmony with who you truly hope to be. Each day that you pass the pillow test, you may or may not be “happy,” but you certainly will make the most out of that precious day of life. To me that’s even better than happy.

One Responses


    Noah, I love this pillow piece. Actually, I love what–and how–you write–always have. I don’t write often, but I think about you, and your ever-grieving friends, often. May 2014 offer you and your friends and family many opportunities for good conversations and the kind of continued health that is found in fellowship. (On another note, I hope for you many good and healthy days personally… Your attitude is amazing and inspiring to me, just so you know.)
    Your fan,
    Karen Cukrowski

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