Winter, the Weatherman, and Me

More than five years ago, meteorologist Dave Epstein got me and so many other Bostonians through the disaster known as Snowpocalypse. Can he do it again during what’s sure to be our darkest season yet?

Photo by Ken Richardson

It’s an odd thing, someone you’ve never met becoming a significant person in your life. But it can happen. That’s what I was thinking about a couple of months ago as I cruised along a series of lovely MetroWest back roads. It was a gorgeous autumn morning and I was on my way to finally sit down with Dave Epstein. This would be the first time I’d actually met the local meteorologist, whose musings on weather, horticulture, and life itself have earned him a cult following, but like many thousands of others around here, I’d felt for a very long time that I knew him anyway.

I don’t recall when I first became aware of Epstein, let’s call it a decade ago, but I can tell you the precise moment that he became my guy—as in, My guy says rain tomorrow or My guy says bring a sweater ’cause it’s gonna cool down later. Referring to Epstein this way produces eye rolls, but I don’t mind. He is my guy. Perhaps you get your weather from Boston mainstays such as Cindy Fitzgibbon, Matt Noyes, or Kevin Lemanowicz. They’re all more than capable of delivering a useful, accurate forecast. My guy? He’s looking out for me. He’s looking out for all of us. He cautions us to change the filter in the air conditioner, reminds us to bring in the plants before the first frost, calls our attention during brisk morning walks to how the light is changing at the end of one season and the beginning of the next. He makes sure we water our shrubs during a drought, and shares tips for maintaining our emotional health during the short days of winter. “David always brings something more to the weather,” the Boston broadcasting icon Emily Rooney, who gave Epstein his first job in town, at WCVB, told me recently. “Sometimes it’s scientific, sometimes it’s just observational, but it’s always put in context of what else is happening.”

More often than not, that context is about helping us to recognize the simple joys of being alive. There are more than 41,000 of us who follow Epstein on Twitter for these kinds of reflections, and another 62,000 on YouTube, where his videos have been viewed more than 19 million times. He’s the meteorological Mr. Rogers, and no matter where we happen to live, he is our neighbor.

It was back in 2015 that Epstein became my guy, in the middle of the winter that nearly broke Boston. A series of storms, as you may recall, blitzed the city for a month, snow falling upon snow. In all, a record 110 inches came down. We’d never experienced anything like it, and the world felt as though it were closing in on us. The snowbanks grew to 7 and 8 feet tall, spilling out into roadways and forcing many streets down to a single, barely passable lane. Ice dams built up in gutters, sending water gushing into homes. My basement flooded after a heating pipe burst. One day, the guy who lived next door walked up to me and, nearly in tears, pointed at the snow that had built up around his house. Where, he wondered, could all of that water possibly go once everything had finally melted? I wondered too.

Then, on February 10, Epstein published a blog post, “The Great Snow of 2015,” on Even though the accumulation was smashing records, he pointed out, we’d been keeping track of such things for only 130 years, a fraction of a fraction of a blip in Earth’s history. “It’s historical to us, in our records, but where it fits in the big picture we really have no idea,” he wrote. “We try to form some meaning around it all, but in actuality it’s just a lot of snow. In 8 weeks, it will be gone…. At some point in the future, maybe next week, maybe next year, all that is being missed during this Great Snow of 2015 will be barely a memory.” And then, the coup de grace: “As the streets continue to narrow and our tolerance and patience for the transformed world we live in grows short, think about the collective experience all of us are sharing. No one is immune from these storms; all of us have our own way of existing during this historical period of weather.”

I had to go back and find the blog post in order to quote from it all these years later, of course, but as I drove along, I marveled at how clearly I was able to recall how it had made me feel. It had lowered my anxiety level and fixed in me a belief that we would, in fact, make it through that winter together, all of us in our own way of existing. Now winter is once again looming, only this time against the backdrop of a nation being ravaged by one of the most dire public health crises in history and the ever-worsening effects of climate change. My guy had pulled us through the depths of 2015, yet somehow here we were again, needing this philosophical soul more than ever.

I pulled into Epstein’s driveway and stepped out into a front yard overflowing with flowers and vegetable gardens. I rang the doorbell and, this being a pandemic, Epstein led me to his backyard patio. As we sat, surrounded by dozens of potted tropical plants, he explained that his acre-size plot in a bucolic stretch of Natick used to be almost entirely grass, but that over the past few years he and his husband, Mark Powers, had converted about half of it to wildflowers and other more natural landscaping.

Epstein is nearly as well known for his horticulture these days as he is for his meteorology. His Twitter handle is @growingwisdom, a kind of overarching brand that includes the creation of gardening videos, some landscaping advice, and a few gardening-product endorsements. Growing Wisdom is, at first glance, an odd fit for an experienced TV weatherman, but that’s the thing about Epstein—though he’s been a fixture on the Boston weather scene for a couple of decades now, meteorology has always been more of a side gig for him.

Epstein, who is 56, established himself in the Boston market during his tenure at WCVB, which ran from 1992 to 2008. For that entire period he was part-time, the weekend and fill-in meteorologist. He supported himself through those years by working as a VP in the software industry, a salesman selling flower and landscaping services to area hotels, and, for an unhappy year, a fundraiser at the aquarium. He was so miserable in that job that he used to lie down on his office floor and fall asleep. “I remember a couple of times people knocking at the door,” he said. “I’d have a carpet mark on my face because I had been fast asleep in there.” As Epstein spoke, a hummingbird suddenly appeared, hovering near a beautiful red flower. “Aren’t they cool?” he asked, explaining that, given the season, the hummingbirds would soon begin their migration. “Literally, like, today or tomorrow, they’re going to be gone.”

Epstein left WCVB 12 years ago, tired of working every weekend. Since then, he said, he’s been part of the “gig economy, where I have different elements that provide revenue.” Today he does contract work in television and radio and on the Web for such outlets as WBZ-TV, the Globe, WBUR, and, in the past, the Portland Press Herald and the CBS affiliate in Portland, Maine. He also teaches meteorology at Colby College, his alma mater, and used to do so at Framingham State University as well.

Epstein’s life certainly looks glamorous. He does what he loves for a living, sets his own schedule, and works for some of the best-known media outlets in New England. There’s also the cottage that he and Powers, an administrator at Framingham State, own on the water in Harpswell, Maine. But to make it all work, Epstein said, he and Powers live a frugal existence. “I maintain a very low debt ratio,” Epstein told me. He was about to send his car, 15 years old and with 260,000 miles on it, to the shop to have new rocker panels installed. “It’s costing me 10 percent of a new car, which will give me another 12 to 18 months,” he explained. He could buy a new car, but that would mean a monthly payment. “Where does that $350 a month come from?” he said. “How many articles can I ask the Globe to write?”

Such questions took on an added urgency over the summer when WBUR let Epstein go as part of a wave of layoffs at the radio station. His work there had accounted for about 60 percent of his income. Now he was looking at the possibility of still another financial hit, this time of his own choosing. Since March, he’d been doing nearly all of WBZ’s weekend weather, and recently the station had asked him to take over the slot full time. But he was going to pass. Having his weekends free was more important to him than the security of the money. “I love these guys and it’s fun,” he said, “but I’m done.”

He said he was going to return to strictly freelancing for WBZ starting in November. It was surprising that he would choose the path of less security and prestige, and it reminded me of when Epstein told me about his parents’ reaction after he resigned from his leadership position in the software industry. “[They] were like, ‘It’s a six-figure job. Are you crazy?’ And I’m like, ‘I’ll figure it out.’” But then, Epstein has always walked a path of his own.

A few weeks later, I visited Epstein in Harpswell, Maine, to watch him do one of his weekend broadcasts. Pulling into the driveway at 6:30 on a Saturday morning, I noticed he was already outside, wearing a blue WBZ vest and standing in front of a skinny tripod, to which he’d attached his iPhone in landscape orientation. Because of the pandemic, he’d been doing his broadcasts remotely since April, from either Natick or Harpswell, with the feed from his phone and laptop displayed live on air.

On Saturdays, Epstein is on several times an hour for three hours. “Top of the hour, mid of the hour, bottom of the hour,” he said. “So it’s a lot.” In Harpswell, he positions himself in a way that allows his phone’s camera to capture the water behind him. It’s especially effective when, as in this moment, the ocean and bobbing boats are bathed in the vivid colors of the sunrise. As we spoke, Epstein heard someone talking to him in his earpiece. “He just said one minute,” he told me. He fiddled with his phone and laptop and, suddenly, he was live. “Good morning, Nick!” he said, looking into his phone. “And yeah, it’s a nice morning out here. It feels a little less like fall and a little more like summer….”

Growing up in Portland, Epstein was fascinated with weather from an early age. He was also aware that this was not the only way he was different from other kids. There was the time, for example, that workers showed up and started cutting down trees near the house where he grew up, at the end of a dead-end street, close to wetlands and a pond. All of it was going to be filled in to make way for housing. The 10-year-old Epstein knew what had to be done. “I took frogs and I started putting them in buckets and walking them down to a different pond,” he recalled. “I knew something bad was going to happen to them.”

It wasn’t just his sensitivity and his intense, geeky love of science that set Epstein apart, though. It was also the fact that he was Jewish in a community where that was uncommon, and also that he was gay, though he told me he didn’t come to fully recognize that until he was older. “I certainly was exposed to quite a bit of anti-Semitism growing up,” he said, recalling “hurtful, mean, horrible anti-Semitic comments as a kid.” Once, in the seventh grade, a group of kids threw pennies at him during a school dance. He hid under the bleachers, crying. “Those are the things that define you as a 12-year-old,” he recalled, “to have that sort of bullying occur and to not have any adults step up.”

Still, Epstein did well academically. After high school, he attended Colby, where he found mentorship and blossomed socially. The painful memories of those years of bullying stayed with him, though, and he has looked for opportunities to provide guidance to young people ever since. After graduating from Colby and landing a job doing TV weather in Burlington, Vermont, for instance, he continued to work weekends as a camp counselor in Maine. Years later, while at WCVB, he earned a master’s degree in counseling from Boston College, specializing in youth therapy. (He also has an MBA from BC.) He even lived in the dorms for a year, serving as an RA—while doing the weekend weather on TV.

Once someone enters Epstein’s orbit, whether as a mentor, a mentee, or just a friend, they tend to remain there. Today, Epstein “has more relationships with people that have been long-standing than anyone I know, by far,” said his close friend Raffaella Peters, who lives near Portland and has known Epstein since they were 12. “He’s willing to do the work—to go out in the night and rescue the frog to save it, or, if he hasn’t heard from someone in a while, to make sure he reaches out…he spends a lot of time nurturing relationships.”

Qiamuddin Amiry, a former student of Epstein’s at Colby who is originally from Afghanistan, told me something similar. Amiry, who now lives in Portland, took Epstein’s meteorology class in 2007. Nearly 14 years later, their friendship has only grown, with Epstein usually taking the initiative when it comes to calling and texting. “I give him all the credit,” Amiry said. “If it had been left to me, like most of my other relationships, [it] would have been gone by now.”

When I asked Epstein why maintaining friendships was such a priority for him, he directed me back to the unhappy years of his youth. “That’s the place where I’m still working,” he said. “It’s being comfortable with [being] David Epstein. My overwhelming baseline emotion underneath everything is probably still loneliness.”

As the Saturday-morning broadcasts continued in Harpswell, Epstein delivered numerous variations of the same basic forecast. After a quick weather hit at 7:30, we headed inside, and Epstein poured himself a cup of tea, wrapping his hands around the mug to warm them. He sat at a table, in front of a wall of windows that overlook the water.

I asked about his efforts to provide mentorship to young people, and he acknowledged that he’s motivated, at least in part, by the isolation and bullying he experienced as a child. Then he told me about a former student of his who’d killed himself two years ago. After learning of the tragedy, Epstein was gripped by a kind of panic—had the student tried to contact him before it happened? “I just wanted to be sure that he didn’t reach out to me and I had forgotten or not answered,” he said. It turned out that Epstein had sent the last text. More recently, he said, a different student hadn’t completed a final exam. Alarmed, Epstein checked in with a family member, who confirmed that the student was indeed struggling. So Epstein gave him an extension to complete the exam. A month later, the student checked himself into rehab. Epstein had texted with him two days ago and the student was doing much better. “So,” Epstein said, struggling not to cry, “I mean, I don’t know what effect I have on him, but it’s positive, right?”

I said I recognized something in that desire of his to ease the suffering of others. I brought up the blog post he wrote during the winter of 2015 and explained how it had helped get me through that time. “And I’m wondering,” I said, “whether you were aware when you were writing that…that it could have that effect on another human being?”

“I wasn’t aware of the depth of how you felt,” he responded. “But it’s probably similar—if you asked Jackson Browne, Do you realize how ‘Hold On Hold Out’ helped David Epstein get through his 16th year, and how hard that 16th year was for him, and what those words meant in that song when he would listen to them? He’d say, Well, I get that my song, some people connected to it. But he wouldn’t understand what that 16-year-old boy was feeling and how those words were like a lifeline in that moment.”

Something in the way Epstein said all of this, especially coming not long after he brought up the former student who’d taken his own life, felt like he was hinting at a teenage anguish that went deeper than I’d realized. “Dave,” I asked carefully, “when you were younger, was there any point in your life—did you ever feel suicidal?”

“Oh, yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. For sure.”

“And it’s made you very sensitive to the suffering or unease of other people?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I mean, who the hell wants to be experiencing all that stuff? To me, it was like an escape. I think in the back of my mind, I knew I would never really take my own life. But the comfort was in the fact I could. I saw it as an escape door. It was a way out.”

Later, Epstein would smile and tell me that he didn’t want to be presented as the “suicidal weatherman.” What he did want, he said, was for people—especially young people—to know that happiness can be found even if you’re experiencing bullying or despair, or feeling different. “As an adult, I don’t have those feelings anymore,” he said. “I’ve worked through them. Done my own therapy. Used meds at times. It’s been a couple of decades since I was in that place.”

My guy, in other words, says rain tomorrow, pack a sweater, and hang in there. All of us, in our own way of existing.