JANUARY 17, 2017 // The California Aggie
Building a world out of patterns and fantasy
Casey Davis strode across the Quad on a chilly fall afternoon. Ignoring the mud that would stain his jeans, he decided to cut across the lawn in order to reach the flagpole as quickly as possible. His bright green cape, drawn over his blue polo shirt, tickled the dewy grass, while his head bent low revealing only a dark brown hat and long beard to any passersby.
Davis models his style of dress off of his lifelong love for fantasy novels. From the Oz books of his childhood to his recent affinity for The Dark is Rising series, Davis’ affection for fictional plots immerses him in a world of magic and mystique.
“The cape started off from just a childhood interest in fantasy novels [and] fairy tales — I still find myself going back to The Lord of the Rings,” Davis said. “Not all of the historical costuming [found in these worlds] is practical for every-day use, but I find the cape a pretty nice way to bring a little bit of that into [my] wardrobe. I think we can learn a lot about the way we look at the world we live in by investigating how we write about fictional other worlds.”
Though Davis is both a physics and math specialist at the Student Academic Success Center (SASC), as well as a member of the English Country Dance Troupe on campus, those who frequent the Memorial Union or the Quad in the afternoons will recognize him by his penny whistle, the sweet tones of which can be heard from yards away.
Davis usually keeps one of the small flute-like instruments, also called tin whistles, in his bag to play throughout the day. His passion for the Irish folk music he plays radiated as he described and demonstrated the differences between this unique instrument as opposed to those the average UC Davis student may recognize.
“The recorder and the penny whistle are very similar in a lot of ways, [but] the fingering is a little different,” Davis said as he played a scale. “I learned most of the tunes I know either from playing along with other people in jam sessions, or just listening to a recording of it over and over again. If every time through I can [play] one or two more notes to what I know of the song, then eventually I get the whole thing.”
Taught at a young age in his hometown of La Verne, Calif., Davis has been practicing and performing Irish folk music all his life. It was moving to Davis in 1999 that allowed him to perfect the penny whistle skills he picked up in middle school — along with the piano, the bodhrán Irish drum and other instruments — in the English Country Dance Troupe. English country dance, as Davis explained, is similar to American line dancing, with a set of patterns and melodies easy to step to in groups of four to eight.
“I offered to join [the troupe] as a musician, and ended up getting pulled into the dances as well, and tagging along to renaissance fairs — I’ve been [a part of the troupe] for 17 years now,” Davis said. “I [also] showed up at college dead-set on […] making an Irish band. [My wife and I] met in the dorms freshman year, […and] she played harp, so the two of us […made a band with] a group of my friends. We played at picnic day for a couple of years, and continued playing together until we all graduated.”
Davis graduated in 2003 as a math major and philosophy minor. He then moved on to get his teaching credential, all the while connecting his love for both subjects to the world of fantasy through books like The Lord of the Rings and complicated strategy board games, of which he has a collection of 70 or 80.
“I spent a lot of time in undergrad thinking about what exactly is the difference between math and physics,” Davis said. “What I finally settled on is that they can both be thought of as games with rules. In physics, you look at the game — the real world — and try to figure out what the rules are. In math, you start by making up some rules, and then explore what game results from those rules. I think in a lot of ways, […] creating a fantasy setting is a little bit like that. You make up a universe, and set up rules for that universe, and see what happens.”
As an alumnus, musician and staff member, Davis has been able to find activities he is passionate about in all corners of town. The diversity of both people and interests in the City of Davis reflects on its size, as Davis finds the area to be a combination of a small town and a large city.
“The fact that it’s a small town means that one person being different is going to stand out a little more, but […] it’s got the progressive big-city inclusiveness of having a university,” Davis said. “Davis is the place where I can build sort of this bubble of weirdness around me, and that’s okay. It’s a lot more pleasant to be in a diverse community, I think, [and] it would be a really boring world if everybody was the same — which is part of what the cape is for.”
After graduating from the UC Davis teaching credential program in 2006, Davis taught in high schools around Northern California before acquiring a tutor specialist position at his alma mater. Besides finding himself having “come full circle,” he said the best part of working at SASC is helping students understand subjects that they can approach in all sorts of ways.
“Everyday, I’m working with people who are learning something new about the world that they’ve never seen before, and I get to be the one who shows it to them,” Davis said. “Getting students [at SASC] from such a wide variety of backgrounds […] really challenges me to figure out […] how I can adapt the way I’m explaining things so that [everyone] can really understand it. The best part of that [is] the ‘aha’ moment, when the student finally understands what’s going on, and this job is ‘aha moments’ all the time.”
One defining moment of his career was receiving an evaluation form at the end of a quarter on which a student had commented that Davis “does a great job of storytelling physics.”
“I had never thought of it that way before, but on reflection, I realized that when I’m teaching physics, I use almost exactly the same voice [and] mannerisms that I use when I’m telling a story that I find exciting,” Davis said. “[This] job seems like it is tailor-made specifically to match my own teaching style. If a student comes in needing help with some branch of physics or engineering that I’ve never looked at before, but is somehow related to other stuff that I do know about, I can start looking for patterns in the equations they’re using versus similar topics that I’ve already seen, and find the similarities. [It’s about] trying it into what you already know.”
Davis’ focus has always been on discovering a career path for which he was both talented and enthusiastic, and encourages others to do the same.
“Find something that you can do that you enjoy doing, that you’re good at or can become really good at, and that helps other people — in a way that you can somehow also get paid for,” Davis said. “If you can find that, latch onto it, make a career out of it and never let go.”
Despite his confidence in fantasy costuming, what he teaches and the music he plays, Davis understands doubts when it comes to achievement and success, but attributes his spirit to the students who come up to him on the quad as he practices for his next renaissance fair performance.
“There’s always the imposter syndrome,” Davis said. “[There’s always] the voice in the back of one’s mind saying ‘you’re not really good at this skill, you’re just pretending you are, and everybody knows that you’re bad at it but they just don’t want to say anything,’ so it’s always nice to get the feedback that people actually do like the music. Also, I think the quad is such a nice place for a little bit of folk music here and there, [and] it’s nice to have more musicians on campus.”
To those who approach him, Davis encourages that they visit Watermelon Music if they’re interested in picking up the penny whistle, his website math.andcheese.org for math and physics help, or Davis Cards and Games if they would like to explore world-building opportunities from a fantasy perspective. But above all, he hopes that students think of him “mythologically.”
“[I want to be remembered as] the ‘music-playing wizard who can make people better at understanding physics just by being in the same room,’” Davis said. “I think I’ve got a pretty good balance of mythological aspirations and being grounded in reality. That was actually the dedication my parents wrote in my high school senior yearbook — ‘keep your head in the clouds and your feet on the ground,’ and I try to live by that.”