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Whitney Houston and the Perfectly Imperfect Life

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Growing up, I wanted to be the greatest at whatever I did, the guy who'd rise above the troubles of my family. I wanted to become the Muhammad Ali, even the Whitney Houston, in my corner of the world.

I wanted to be the best runner, the best baseball player, the best surfer, even if couldn't swim until I was eight. I grew up at the Jersey Shore but, for so many years, I was too afraid to swim in water that went over my head.

I wanted to be the best writer, even as my college roommate at Rutgers made fun of it, calling it "a bad imitation of Shakespeare." I wanted to be musician, even if I didn't know my octaves from my falsettos, or my piano keys from my car keys.

I wanted to be a star, but not one of power, money and fame. I wanted to last forever, become a Wikipedia entry that would live on the Internet for a long time, just like the stars I've watched and emulated.

Back in 1986, I first heard Whitney Houston sing "The Greatest Love of All," a song that was written about Ali, and saw her dance in the video, her lips shaking as she reached octaves I could never reach. I never really liked her music, but I wanted to be like her, anyway, because she was the greatest in her corner of the world, the Ali of music.

We grab onto these stars, these Whitney Houstons of our world, for support and inspiration. We hope they can be as good as our parents, and maybe even better. We hope they'll demonstrate the strength and valor that we want from ourselves, and from others.

Time and again, however, when we grab onto them, they merely crumble and flake. We learn that these people, these Whitney Houstons, are perfectly human, perfectly imperfect, more like us than we ever dreamed.

That's what we heard Saturday. That's what we'll hear through the weekend, when she's eulogized at a Newark church, and then laid to rest, all too early, and all too young.

I've watched Whitney Houston in recent years, no longer the greatest of them all, and I believe that she was more like me than she'd ever admit, if she ever knew who I was.

As I've written in my book, A Legacy of Madness: Recovering My Family From Generations of Mental Illness, I've had at least four generations of my family fall to self-destruction. Like her, addictions -- and, perhaps, mental illness -- have brought us down. She's had it in her family; I've had it mine. She's had to look at herself in the mirror and wonder, just as I have.

I've often talked about feeling so frustrated as I stood on the playgrounds of Point Pleasant Boro, N.J., watching others do things I could never do. They could date a lot of girls, hit home runs over high fences and jump and grab the rims at the basketball courts off Beaver Dam Road, where the library is now. And those rims were only seven feet high.

These kids were the stars of my world, I saw them grow into the surfers and singers -- one of whom became a bassist with Stone Temple Pilots -- that I dreamed I could be, but knew I could never replicate.

But, soon enough, we'd learn from them, just as we learned from Whitney.

As we got older, I'd feel human, because they would talk to me, and tell me that they, too, had friends and family who also suffered. They, too, suffered themselves, as I did when I went through years of battling bulimia and anorexia, or even some sort of anxiety or social disorder, that held them back, just as they did me.

These were people who wore sweaters that I could never afford, the people whom I thought didn't have a mother, who suffered through years of obsessive compulsive disorder and addiction.

They had the mothers who made cookies and cupcakes, and always gave me some extras to bring home, knowing that I'd never get another chance at tasting them.

Then, some 20 years later, I'd meet these same people through Facebook, and I'd hear about their mothers and fathers, and I'd hear about the pain they went through but never talked about. I'd hear about the struggles their parents had with alcoholism, and how well they hid it even as they made those perfect cupcakes with the rich chocolate icing.

When I first heard Whitney, I barely paid attention to her, or to her singing. She came of age when my attention was turned toward the leather-clad rockers like Springsteen and The Clash.

The song that finally got me was "The Greatest Love of All," what could be a perfectly mediocre song that she made eternal. The song was written for a movie about Ali, ironically, but the first time I heard it, it was Whitney singing it.

I heard those peaks in her voice, how she could hold a note almost as long as the song itself. Perfect. I saw her sing "The Star Spangled Banner" at the Super Bowl in 1991, and I saw how she could do it better than anybody before her, or since.

A generation later, now that we've watched Whitney for so many years battle her own demons, and battle against drinking and drugs, we now know what those songs were.

They were just like the cupcakes, hiding something that we never knew was there, until it was too late.

We would learn, all too late, that she was like the rest of us: perfectly imperfect.

This story first appeared on Patch.

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