Somewhere those waffles exist: A farewell to Parks and Recreation

There’s no wrong time to find Parks and Rec, but I like to think I found it at the right time. I saw my first few episodes at the end of senior year of college. A month later, I left to volunteer for a year in Alaska, Parks and Rec DVDs tucked between my rain boots. I’d been told to pack lightly, but this show was already a necessity.

Within the first week, I’d introduced it to my roommates, so we knew Leslie Knope before we really even knew each other. The show was our language. We wrote Ron Swanson quotes on the bathroom mirror (“Never half ass two things. Whole ass one thing”) and Tom Haverford quotes on the fridge. We said yes with “I think I will, good lady” and yelled “MAKE YOUR FACE BETTER” before every photo. Whatever we knew for sure, we attributed to “school.” Any show could have done this. Any good TV series can bring people together. But Parks and Rec also happens to be about bringing people together, and that made it kind of perfect.

Parks is about people who “like to hold hands and jump off cliffs together, into the great unknown.” I felt a bit like that’s what I had done. The image of the Parks Department forcefully pushing Leslie Knope onto her campaign platform in the middle of an ice rink defines that year for me, and not just because of the ice. These people were struggling and underfunded and determined not to let each other stay down. Leslie founded Galentine’s Day and led the Pawnee Goddesses; I worked with girls who needed to be told and told again that they were worth it, that they could make something of themselves. Andy and April drove to the Grand Canyon in the middle of the night because that’s what they’d want to do at the end of the world. We drove to the end of the road in the middle of the night to chase the northern lights (no luck, but the company was unbeatable).

The show mirrored our lives in ways I didn’t even notice at the time, because I was living it, and I’d forgotten that the whole world wasn’t an offbeat small town. Now, saying goodbye to Parks and Rec means losing the most concrete attachment I have to that place, which is Pawnee as much as it is Alaska. Pawnee gives a fence as a beauty pageant prize; a friend in Alaska once ran things through a juicer at the monthly talent show. I like to think that Ben Wyatt would make a face at the camera but secretly really love it.

Leslie made Ben want to put down roots in Pawnee. She taught him how to build something, and he wanted to build it with her, because ultimately, the place is the people. (“The town has really nice blonde hair.”) Parks and Recreation invites us to see a whole world in people and warns us against only seeing other people for what they can add to our world.

“He’s a tourist. He vacations in people’s lives, takes pictures, puts them in his scrapbook, and moves on. All he’s interested in are stories. Basically, Leslie, he’s selfish. And you’re not. That’s why you don’t like him.”

Parks is not a show about passing through. It’s a show about staying a while, doing the hard work, and fighting tirelessly without applause or acclaim. But it never asks us to get so caught up on the problems that need fixing that we forget to stop and look up.

“In times of stress or in moments of transition, sometimes it can feel like the whole world is closing in on you. When that happens, you should close your eyes, take a deep breath, listen to the people that love you when they’re giving advice, and remember what really matters.”

The people are the place. As long as we know that, we don’t have to be afraid to keep moving—to new jobs, to new cities, to all of those big opportunities that would kill lesser comedies but only ever made Parks stronger. When Leslie lost her seat on City Council, Jen told her to dream bigger.

“Look, you love this town. It’s being run by monsters and morons? Get a better job! Rise above their heads! Effect change at a higher level! … Pawnee has done you a favor. You’ve outgrown them. You’ve got talent, you’ve got name recognition, which means that you have a bright, wide open future with a thousand options.”

There was always tension between Leslie’s big time dreams and her small town pride. She saw herself in the White House but couldn’t see any reason to leave Pawnee. She wanted to sit in the big leather chairs in the important halls of this country, but her best self came out when she was knee deep in dirty river water, or bent over a woman’s garden, or sitting patiently with the concerns of her fellow townspeople, or fighting to save a gazebo. But word of her hard work in Pawnee got back to people in Washington, and her work in Washington can change life in Pawnee. Her very grounded sense of loyalty doesn’t have to ground her career. Everything connects.

I’ve always loved that so many of the characters on this show were created for the actors, tailored to their specific brand of comedy. This is a show about doing what you do best—not to be selfish, but because you never know who might need it. The whole town celebrates Li’l Sebastian because “he does being a mini-horse, and he does it better than anyone.” Even April, so worried that she’s destined to hate everything she tries, took a risk this season to find a career that nurtured her talents, and the whole team supported her in that.

leslie comeback kid

Losing Parks and Rec feels a bit like losing young adulthood, maybe not in terms of age, but in terms of the permission to fall hard. Fall for people, fall for the town you grew up in, fall for Paris, fall on your face, get up, keep going. Don’t settle unless you want to. Don’t be ashamed to settle when you do. Parks is the voice that tells me that this is okay. I’m afraid to lose it. It has more to tell me. I’m afraid that life without Parks and Recreation is colder and less welcoming.

I came home from work last night to a list of scattered feelings I’ve been compiling since I thought about the finale a few months ago at 2:43 am and realized I was so far from ready. I didn’t know where to start, so I picked an episode at random and went from there. Episode 4×13: “Bowling for Votes,” in which Leslie obsessively tries to be all things to everyone, until finally she lets go and lets the ones who love her fight by her side, which is all any of us can ask for when we’re losing control. That’s fitting.

But any episode would have been. I found this show at the right time, but there is no wrong time. Anyone feeling unsettled can take Parks and Rec as encouragement to go on, to dream bigger. Anyone feeling at home can learn from Leslie Knope how to dig deep and stay dedicated until the last light in City Hall goes out. The desire to love is in every stroke of that wildflower mural up on the second floor, and the willingness to bridge gaps between people lives in the doorway of Ron Swanson’s office.

“Look, I’m not crazy. I know Pawnee isn’t Paris or London or Chicago, but it’s a great place to live and work. And serving the goofballs in this town is an honor and a privilege. And yes, every town claims its diner’s waffles are the best in the world, but somewhere in some town there really are the best waffles in the world. So delicious, and rich, and golden brown that anyone who tasted them would decide never leave that town. Somewhere those waffles exist. Why can’t it be here?”

Thanks for the waffles, Parks and Rec. I love you and I like you.

leslie ben hug parks

18 comments

  1. So Good! I was a watcher of The Office, so like many, I gave a few episodes of S1 of P&R a chance and didn’t love it. A couple of years later, I was out of work for a few days because of a root canal. I had seen a lot of people raving about the show (in the TRUST US IT IS GOOD NOW way) and since I was basically bedridden with drugs and netflix, decided to give it a go. I still think starting with S1 is necessary, but I also fell in love with it in S2-S3, which I binge watched in my drugged state 🙂 I’ve tried to catch every episode since, but now I’m feeling like a rewatch is in order. I remember at the time being so annoyed that people were like “Parks and Rec is going to surpass The Office in terms of quality” and I thought that was crazy, but I think it’s totally true, for several reasons. One is that The Office just went on too long and folded in too many new characters. But another major one is Poehler. AHHHHH, I am not ready.

    Ben and Leslie are my favorite TV married couple of all time. There have been other TV couples that I have liked for different reasons, but as marrieds not so much. And I also forever will want an emoji of Tom’s face whenever he does this. It just fits so many situations. https://33.media.tumblr.com/ce7eb33d24aa6a04c4c634d3225bc09a/tumblr_mpm48hRXVR1sn8xnoo2_500.gif

    1. That FACE. It’s so perfectly Tom–he’s just a kid trying to be cool at that point.
      I’m not ready. And I’m so with you on how well Ben and Leslie have functioned as a married couple on the show. How is Parks so good at EVERYTHING?

  2. Thanks for this Kelly! There’s water leaking somewhere near my face but it’s because I love this show so darn much! It’s that kind of show that you can just turn on and watch and it makes whatever is bad go away for a little while. It makes me guffaw at the same time that it makes me bawl my eyes out. I’m going to miss this show. Thanks for this beautiful tribute to it!

  3. Thank you for making me cry at 11:30am at work. I have no replacement mascara.

    “Don’t settle unless you want to. Don’t be ashamed to settle when you do. Parks is the voice that tells me that this is okay.” More tears.

    So beautiful, Kel. Thank you for making me fall so hard for a show I just met. And now it’s leaving me what feels like far too soon.

    I don’t suppose we can emotionally prepare for tonight; so, wine, a cuddle buddy and deep breaths will have to do.

    1. Oh I’ve definitely already cried about Parks at my desk today. But if people AREN’T crying about the Parks and Rec finale, I don’t think I really care what they think of me.

      Thank youuu, my dear! I’m so glad you at least get to watch the finale live! No emotional prep can suffice, but I’ll be thinking of you.

    1. Ahh, you would LOVE it. It’s the warmest, most service oriented show. Season 1 doesn’t really have the same tone as the rest, but it’s only six episodes, and by season 2, they’re on their game. Definitely, definitely watch. And THANKS!

  4. This is so perfect. I wanted to quote so much of it, but it would basically be the entire post.

    “Parks is not a show about passing through. It’s a show about staying a while, doing the hard work, and fighting tirelessly without applause or acclaim.” — That? is a pretty perfect summary.

    I’d love to say more, but I’m a little too verklempt at the moment. We need more of the spirit of Pawnee in our lives.

  5. Okay, so once again you are awesome with expressing how I feel and about one of my favorite shows. You did it with the X Files and now with Parks and Rec. This show was, no is, so awesome. I tuned in mainly because Amy Poehler was on it and I stayed for everyone else. Andy quickly became one of my favorites simply because of his quirkiness. I love Ron and how he lets Leslie be Leslie. Donna and Tom- Treat Yo Self- the best. Poor Jerry.. April is great in her creepy and downright uncaring vibe. Ann and Leslie are the best girlfriends-ever. Chris and Ben are such a great team. Mona Lisa and John Ralphio, God. Craig and how he screams- as Gob would say- “Come on!”

    I wish I could add pictures to my post, but I do not know how. 😦 I will leave you with some of my favorite lines..

    “What the mother-effing, c-ing, ess-ing, effing k-ing eff is going on right now?”
    “You can’t say that your favorite kind of cake is birthday cake. That’s like saying your favorite kind of cereal is breakfast cereal.”
    “Stop pooping!”
    “Pikitis!”
    “Who is pregnant?!”
    “That’s insane! You love Harry Potter! You’ve seen all eight movies!”

    Honesty I think pretty much anything that Ron says is good.

    When Tom is doing the soft opening of the bistro and the photos on the menus are of Larry’s dogs butt… Oh my god. And Tom says, “Larry, Larry, Larry.” I lose it every time.
    When Leslie meets Michelle Obama- The best. “I’m getting louder now and I can’t stop! My apologies!” And then she laughs.

    So many more, but those ones always stick out to me. I love the one from Mona Lisa and when Chris says “stop pooping.” So funny.

    Anyway, thank you again for such a great write up about the show. I am still working on all my comments about The X Files. I have sooo much to say. 🙂

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