Updated: Jul 2, 2020
The latest in this interview series features "Gundo weatherman" and father of three, Avery Smith.
Interview by Elliott Wright
Some readers may know Avery Smith as El Segundo’s recreational weatherman. Others may know him for his work as the president of a large insurance agency, helping countless individuals find dental insurance across 50 states. Either way, he is an interesting individual who was even more interesting to interview. This August marks eighteen years since Avery and his then-girlfriend—now wife—started their lives together in El Segundo. I reached out to him in early June to learn about how his day job and meteorology hobby have changed since going into coronavirus lockdown. Additionally, we reflected on the recent events sweeping the country, and world, since late May. Read on to learn more.
Elliott: Avery, tell me about what you do for work and how COVID-19 has affected operations for you and your team.
Avery: We are an insurance agency and technology company at the same time. When people are looking for dental insurance, we provide a 50-state list for people to look at different options online. They pick one, and then we help enroll those individuals to get coverage. We are like the Expedia.com of dental insurance. Our website is DentalInsurance.com. I enjoy the partnerships and learning why people pick the plans that they do. I find that fascinating.
With the agency being your day job, tell me more about your labor of love, forecasting weather.
There is a community page on Facebook called El Segundo Parents Network. I would go on there every time there was a storm coming in and post a heads-up. Group members found that information really helpful. I was really just posting it for fun. I started doing that four years ago.
Eventually there were so many people that wanted to know how I came up with my forecasts. I have always been a bit of a weather geek and followed weather patterns and all that good stuff.
That turned into my becoming the town weatherman [laughs]. I had no aspirations of that—it was completely unintentional. Now we have our own Gundo Weather Facebook page. It’s been very cool. My kid will be in school and someone will approach him and ask, “Is your dad the El Segundo weatherman?” It happens to him all the time.
As you have an interest in weather, this next question feels fitting. With all of the evidence that the planet has benefitted from the world staying indoors and traveling less, do you think humanity will make more of an effort to keep this trend going?
I have some mixed feelings on that. Where I definitely agree is that even within the first month [of California’s “Safer at Home” order], I could see profound changes, especially in air quality. Los Angeles had some of the cleanest air it had seen in many decades. It was noticeable very quickly.
In terms of my company, we have a lot of employees [now working from home] who typically have a one-way commute of about an hour or more, even an hour-and-a-half. All of them have discovered that this is three hours a day that they were losing in traffic. It became very impactful to them.
I think, whatever the new normal will be, there will be a lot of people who want to stay in, because they have discovered this new time in their day—time is always precious. So I think from that perspective, we may not be as environmentally conscious as we should be, but from a more practical and personal standpoint, I think that may drive us to change.
Unfortunately, I don’t have as much positivity around people recognizing the climatic changes. I think the main change is that people won’t want to be stuck in traffic for two or three hours a day anymore, [commuting to work].
Have you picked up any new hobbies since going into lockdown?
The main activity that I have been practicing is re-learning Spanish. I took it in high school and kind of forgot about it. Then I went to college and took German, which was cool.
The thing with language, though, is that if you are not practicing it and working on it, it’s going to fade. My German has pretty much all faded. With Spanish, there are so many more opportunities in L.A. to use it. You can be immersed in it via TV and radio. You can almost live speaking Spanish exclusively in L.A.
Have you been using apps like Duolingo?
So I do have Duolingo. But I found that—and I might sound a little snobbish here—for the level I’m at, Duolingo wasn’t enough. It just wasn’t challenging enough. I found this app called HelloTalk, which is really cool. It pairs you up as a native English speaker with native Spanish speakers. It’s conversational. I’ve made new friends and new connections from Spanish-speaking countries, including Peru, Bolivia, Mexico, Colombia, and others.
I highly recommend HelloTalk. You get a lot of attention as an English speaker who wants to learn Spanish. I have so many people who are willing to help me learn.
Learning a new language is an incredible way to pass the time. That’s very productive of you. If you feel like unwinding, do you and the family watch anything on TV?
My wife loves the show 90 Day Fiancé. It’s a lot of drama. How it works: these are people who have long-distance relationships; they have fallen in love online. So [the production gets] this 90-day visa for people to come to America, or for them to go to their partner’s country. Then these couples discover, within that time period, if they are going to marry each other or not. So that is the premise. It’s a TLC show on Hulu. I would say that is the main show we get caught up in.
Have you been reading at all?
Reading—that is one thing I have not been doing. I typically read quite a lot.
I would read on my flights. I travel for work; I rack up about 120,000 airline miles per year. So typically that’s when I would read a book—on a plane. I’m usually flying to the east coast, Florida, and the Midwest. I would have a lot of time on my hands, and would either read contracts I was working on, or books. Since the travel hasn’t happened, I haven’t been reading.
I was a history major in college, so reading is literally like your right hand. I think that by the time you go to college, if you are going to be a liberal arts major, you really have to love reading.
Is there any particular type of music that has been playing on rotation in the Smith household?
With music, I play the piano. In the earlier part of the lockdown, I was playing more than I am playing now. I think what has happened is that my passion for learning Spanish has just taken over everything. I use the piano as more of a kind of therapy when I’m stressed out. In those situations, I will go and play the piano.
So that’s my thing; I like to play music. If I want to hear something, I’ll just learn it and play it.
You are the first person I have interviewed that plays music as opposed to just listening to it. A friend of mine and I keep trading recommendations back and forth over text, going down all sorts of music rabbit holes.
To me, true music lovers, they listen to music the way you are describing. You just get caught up in the music itself, and get lost in it. That’s fantastic.
Lots of friends and family I know have used lockdown to reflect on what is important in their lives. What are your thoughts on this, especially in light of what has been occurring across the country and the whole world?
The lockdown has given us an opportunity to gain more perspective, for two reasons.
There’s so much less that we can do. We can’t physically go to work or travel. You have more time to focus on these recent events [particularly surrounding the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the resulting protests around the country]. I think that newfound focus is leading to conversations—particularly if you have kids, or adult parents, with whom to talk. You have more time to converse and think about what is going on. I think that’s one of the reasons why this is so impactful—everyone can see it and talk about it and think about it. So yes, I do think that is a plus.
Now being a history major, I’m a little bit more skeptical, because this isn’t the first time [a sweeping push for equal rights] has happened. However, society has gotten a lot better, specifically with regard to racism.
From history, what has typically happened is that, at first, there is a lot of energy. But that energy is focused on the short term. What about this situation is going to help us sustain that energy? I don’t know if I have figured out what those items are, if that makes sense.
Recently I have been wondering what the other side is hoping to get out of this? The side not concerned with equality for all.
French thinker Antoine Lavoisier advanced the idea that matter cannot be created or destroyed. For every person that’s feeling the effects of racism or sexism, there’s somebody that’s getting an equal amount of advantage from that same situation.
I think that at a very basic level, there is a resistance to change from those people. Like, “Hey, I wanna keep this advantage and pass that advantage on to my kids.” I honestly think it comes from that.
There’s a book called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari that was written somewhat recently. I was reading that, and it really breaks down the human mind. From a basic DNA perspective, we haven’t evolved much in the last 30,000 years. The main ideas we generate center on procreation and protection. Those are the two things, as humans, that we are focused on.
If you think about the people that are resistant to change, they are in that protection mode. They want to pass along their advantage to their kids. A lot of people do realize that they have an advantage, and they want to sustain it. Which is sad, because it’s at the expense of productivity, diversity, and all those good things that highly outweigh the system that we have today.
Are there any potential positives that have come out of the past several weeks?
I would say, I think a point of optimism is seeing all of the young people on the streets, exercising their right to protest. I think that sometimes we get caught up in what they are protesting about as opposed to the fact that we have this generation that is continuing on with the American legacy of protest. That is something to be happy about and to encourage. Even if you don’t agree with the manner or what the subject matter is. These are people that feel like this is their country too, and they are stepping in. They are going to be our future leaders, so that has been very exciting for me to see.
It is my generation who needs to stand up in terms of addressing social change, in addition to the climate issue.
You are absolutely right. It is your time. There is another thing I want to say. What is important, especially as a person of color in this community, is that I would like for people to listen. Listen more, especially to the voices of color.
Whenever there are any kind of “-isms,” there are people that are experts in that matter. Whatever it may be. For instance, racism. As a person of color, unfortunately, I have a lot more experience dealing with it.
What happens with racism is that everyone thinks they’re an expert. Then, they drown out the voices that really need to be heard. I think if we listen more, we are going to discover so much.
An example that means the most to me is in terms of sexism and women. Unfortunately, in companies I have worked at, I have had to be a witness for sexual harassment and related problems. To hear the women’s stories—it would just blow your mind what some men have done to women in that regard. As a guy, for example, you never have to think about what you might wear to work. When I started to really listen to women, even learning about the contents of women’s purses and why they carry certain items—for protection—it’s mind-blowing to me. As a man, it is difficult to wrap your head around it.
Likewise, I think if more people listen [to those who have experienced racism], they will have the same moments [of learning] that I have had. For them to realize, “Oh, I didn’t know it was like that,” instead of just talking. “Oh, we should do this, or do that.” If people would just listen more, we would get so much further.