The rate of change in Jessica Gerlach’s life, age 41, is phenomenal. Only a few years ago this Pierre, South Dakota native lived on an eleven acre spread west of Rapid City with her husband and three children. She brought her kids into town each day for school and ran her two local businesses, a make-it-yourself pottery studio and a community painting storefront. “The house was good, but the four car garage and the shop were incredible. We had several cars and a motor home and snowmobiles, all the toys.” They also had a cabin in a canyon in the Black Hills twelve miles outside of town.
Then things changed pretty fast. “My husband is an avid cyclist. No, that understates it. He’s crazy about cycling. He builds custom homes for a living, but when he got the chance to buy Cranky Jeff’s Cycle Shop we decided to do it. All he wanted was the discounts, but I realized I needed a change. The pottery store was getting stale. So I sold that and invested in the bike store.” The family also bought a warehouse in town and converted into living space. “People do that sort of thing on the Coasts, but not in South Dakota.” Then Jessica’s husband left. “I didn’t see it coming. We met when I was fifteen. I knew we had our peaks and falls, but I figured you just hang through them.” Now, Jessica lives in a 1915 house in the West Side Historic District within blocks of her two painting and bicycle stores. Her children: ages 14 to 21, live with her. Jessica’s businesses are tight operations, but she runs a casual yet lively house. “We have only two rules, respect each other and never lie.” Jessica and I chatted over a dinner of Mexican casserole, quinoa salad, fresh vegetables, and local beer on her back patio on a long summer evening as her children and their friends came and went. “We eat mostly Vegan, but we also like meat and we love Kool-Aid.”
“My father was one of sixteen, my mother one of nine. They grew up poor, and only wanted better for us. So I went to high school, then college (Business degree from South Dakota State), married my boyfriend, had children, started businesses. I can’t say exactly why I did all that. I can say I never thought, ‘I am doing this for me.’ I did was I was supposed to do and never questioned. Now I’m 41 and single and my children are drifting away and I’m not even sure how to formulate that question. What do I want?
“Pierre is a farm community. It’s also the State Capital, but it’s still a farm community. Growing up, my parents were liberal in a conservative state. We were the 25%, the vocal minority. We accepted that our views would never govern. Then the Gore election happened and the country was 51/50. I didn’t take that as a positive sign, I took it as a sign of instability. Life in a 75/25 country is stable, I may not like the ruling policies, but I trust that our country’s essentials are in place – our freedom, our economic basis, our stability. 51/50 is not stable. Third parties are not stable. They can generate 20% support and throw open everything.
“We all want the same essential aspects for our country, but when we operate from a 51/50 basis, the secondary issues get exaggerated. Healthcare and gay marriage and pro-life are important issues, but they are secondary to our essential freedom. None of us know what will trigger instability, but with so much discord, it could rise out of almost anything.
“Our civic responsibilities are falling away, in part because our system is out of sync. I was probably the last person ever to order a mail-in absentee ballot when I was in college. My kids aren’t going to do that. They don’t even know who the governor is. I did, because I lived in Pierre and it was part of our lives. But for my kids, who is governor feels irrelevant. Why is our voting system so archaic? My kids aren’t going to stand in a line in a school gym and get a paper ballot from a 90-year-old woman. It has to be online, with fingerprint verification.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“Once you start having an opinion or a belief, that’s when you stop learning. I will try to stay open.”