How I learned the Facts of Life

Things have been heavy around here for a while.  So I hope you will be pleased to know that this post has no discernible “point” except to hopefully make you laugh.  And cringe a little. 

I want to tell you the story of my first love.

I first became aware that I was male by virtue of Erin Gray on TV’s Buck Rogers in the 21st Century.  I was in early elementary school, but I knew I liked her futuristic jump suits.  So I spent much of the time I rode my bike thinking of elaborate peril Erin Gray might find herself in, and how I’d have a heroic and grandiose entrance onto the scene to save her, which in turn would win her heart forever.

But Erin Gray and Wonder Woman’s Lynda Carter were only infatuations.  Then came my first love.

Growing up in the parsonage of a Church of God preacher, I developed a peculiar interest in the 80’s sitcom The Facts of Life early in life.  I watched it for hours on end.  We got our first VCR when I was in the second grade, and it changed my life.  I liked to watch movies on it.  But the first and primary reason I was excited about the VCR was much more primal: I could record episodes of The Facts of Life onto videocassette and see Blair WHENEVER I WANTED.  And thus to this day, there still exists an old box of videotapes where I taped every episode I saw, one 6 hour reel after another of Facts of Life goodness.

Blair was the pretty blonde played by Lisa Whelchel, a spoiled rich diva we could not help but love.  I thought she was charming and beautiful all along, but then came the discovery that took me over the top in adoration for fair Lisa: she was even a Christian.  I was a preacher’s kid, so as much as I might like how Erin Gray looked in those jumpsuits, I also knew the very fact she would wear them demonstrated she probably did not love the Lord.

unguarded_w[1]It was for similar reasons I was giving up my lengthy flirtation with Amy Grant. I could sit in my room listening to “Angels Watching over Me” over and over again, wishing I could watch over Amy.  I started playing drums in adult church when I was 5 years old on a full set, and I’d play the drums to that track.  But my affections for Amy were cooling by the time she put out her Unguarded album.  I didn’t judge her, but when she appeared on the cover wearing that leopard print jacket, I knew she was too much woman for me.  Nobody either at the Lane Street Church of God in Kannapolis nor any of the teenage beauty queens at camp meeting wore leopard print anything, even the edgy ones.  That jacket signified a carnal knowledge, an understanding of the things of earth I knew I was not yet prepared for.  The fact that Amy was a Christian singer wearing leopard print made her seem like the ultimate bad girl in my world.  She might as well have been Madonna parading around on stage in a cone bra as far as I was concerned.

220px-All_Because_of_You_Lisa_Whelchel_album[1]No, I was ready to settle down with a wholesome girl, the kind of all-American beauty I could comfortably take to camp meeting.  And that was Lisa Whelchel.  Not only was she a Christian—she put out a contemporary Christian album called All Because of You.  I had it on vinyl.  And I think I may be the world’s foremost expert on this album, because I owned tracing paper and my favorite pastime for a year was to put the sketch paper over the album cover and trace Lisa’s picture repeatedly.  It is difficult to find the album today.  But the album only made me more deeply head over heels—here is a woman who loves both Jesus AND SYNTHESIZERS.  I’m telling you, it’s a keyboard bonanza.  As cool as she was on the show, this took Lisa to near mythic status in my mind.

pub83_d[1]And then came the day when I found (what grace!) that Lisa Whelchel had a family-run fan club.  I used my allowance to pay the fee and signed up.  I never will forget when that dense long envelope came in the mail, bulging with happiness.  I opened reverently to discover my very own Lisa Whelchel fan club membership card and this 8 x 10 glossy black and white picture.  It was the holy grail.  Every so often I would get more pictures in the mail.  Here is Lisa cooking in the kitchen with her brother!  Here is casual Lisa, formal wear Lisa, Lisa on the Facts of Life set!

She was 15 years older than me.  But true love waits.  And I was sure that by the time I was grown enough to move to LA, she’d be there waiting for me.  Until the day I got the most bittersweet fan club letter of them all. Lisa was getting married.  And adding insult to injury?  She was marrying a pastor on staff at Jack Hayford’s Church on the Way in Van Nuys, CA.  The horror!  She was marrying a PENTECOSTAL PASTOR!  This simultaneously confirmed that she was perfect for me, and yet dashed my hopes of a future in LA.

I continued to be an adoring fan, and carried the membership card in my wallet for years.  That way, I could glimpse her wherever I was and whatever I was doing.  Though my membership expired in 1988, I never removed the card.  It was how I would have wanted to be identified and remembered: this was Jonathan Martin.  He was a member of the Lisa Whelchel fan club.

Lisa went on to home school her kids and write books about parenting.  From contemporary Christian music populated by synthesizers to the parenting books—it is a Christian subculture tragedy romance from start to finish.

It was heartbreaking to be certain, and yet it confirms the profound truth of a wise song I once heard about the realities of growing up.  I’m not sure, maybe Dylan wrote it.  I conclude with the haunting words of that tune: “You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both, and there you have…the facts of life, the facts of life.”

Yes friends, it does indeed take a lot to get ‘em right…when you are learning the facts of life.



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