Monthly Archives: April 2013

095: AWWWWWWWW YEAHHHHHHHHH

21 April 2013

Today’s music I will not forget so fast. His words, however, are starting to fade – so I will quickly transcribe from memory (ugh. I think much of it will be paraphrasing) what I remember of our exchange at the CD signing:

RB: Hello.

J: Hi, Rafał! [hands over CD, liner notes taken out] Please, could you tell me when your new CD of Chopin’s polonaises will be released?

RB: What?

J: Your new recording with DG, of the Chopin –

RB: Oh, yes, that album. So you saw the website? I think they had the cover.

J: Yes, I was wondering if you could tell us when that would be released.

RB: Mmm – yes, it will be released in the autumn. [signs liner notes reverse]

J: Do you think you’ll ever record Rachmaninoff?

RB: I do not know.

J: Could you also sign the CD?

RB: But it’s a blue marker [holds up sharpie], is that okay?

J: It’s fine. Please do!

RB: [signs CD] All right. Thank you!

J: Good luck with your PhD! Please do release an English translation of your thesis so we can read it too. Thank you so much, Rafał!

There was a lot of nodding and nervous smiling on my part that I left out of that. I’m just absolutely floored that I met the greatest living pianist face-to-face and talked with him! (Anne kindly took a picture of us, too; he’s got such a nice smile…)

Many thanks to Anne for putting up with my mad fanboy mannerisms all afternoon. Mad props, too; I’m quite good at driving people up the wall, and you didn’t seem affected. Additional thanks for the tissue when I cut my finger open; it really helped.

The biggest “thank you” of all goes to Rafał himself, of course, for providing us with an unforgettable afternoon of music. Perhaps two years ago, I would have nodded off halfway through the Bach (getting no sleep last night didn’t help this point); today, I was wide awake and completely at attention for every note (I spaced out a tiny bit between the second and third mazurkas, thinking about something troubling).

Rafał is an artist who’s not limited to being “the person on stage.” In his retirement, I bet he’d make a wonderful friend and an excellent conversationalist. Compare this to … say, Sergei Rachmaninoff. His artistry is beyond doubt, but the “six-foot scowl” (according to Igor Stravinsky) part of him marks him initially as somebody a bit harder to keep up with. (Some sources dispute this. I don’t know. I’m illustrating an example.) Rafał, on the other end, is so gentlemanly that you could hardly fail to also like him as a person. His playing is, in some ways, a caricature of his personality, too, I think; it shows in his conservative style and crystal-clear, lucid musicality. You take one look at him (or cock one ear at him) and you judge him to be a kind, warm, good person.

His voice is soft and not very deep. You get the impression he’s still young (which he is), younger than he already is. His stage presence isn’t imposing, but it’s honest: it’s not pretentious or show-offy; it is neither artificial nor forced. It’s just him.

And, let’s not forget his line of work: as an artist he is incomparable. Today’s program:

J.S. Bach – Partita No. 3 in A minor

L.v. Beethoven – Sonata in D Major, Op. 10 No. 3

F. Chopin – Nocturne in A-flat Major, Op. 32, No. 2; Two Polonaises, Op. 40; Three Mazurkas, Op. 63; Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp minor, Op. 39

Encores: F. Chopin – Waltz in A minor, Op. 34 No. 2; Prelude No. 7 in A major, Op. 28.

The partita was excellent; I’ve only ever heard Blechacz play Bach in a small clip on YouTube, a bit from one of the Italian Concertos. Not only was this a chance for Rafał to show off his polyphonic chops, his cleanliness with the pedal and perfectly formed ornaments were a delight to hear.

Then Rafał turned to Beethoven – and boy, did he bring the house down for that. I’ve said this a million times, and I’ll say it again: in no way was his playing electrifying. It was, however, pure and good and true. It was art. I really enjoyed his playing of the second movement (Largo e mesto); it was a tragic segment that we have not heard much of from Rafał yet, not in his recordings.

After the intermission, we were treated to an all-Chopin gala: the gorgeous nocturne, all wrapped up in silk, was ear therapy for me. Anne wasn’t so fond of it, criticizing his articulation; I myself didn’t find anything wrong with it. In fact, I have a feeling that I prefer Rafał’s interpretation over Evgeny Kissin’s / Yundi Li’s (the other two references I have).

Our views diverged again for the first of the two polonaises. I felt that the first in A major wasn’t exactly up to Rafał’s standards of perfection. It was nonetheless a triumph; that much we agreed on. Even now, though, I’m still puzzling over whether or not he hit a pretty sour wrong note at one point. I’m starting to convince myself I was hallucinating.

The second polonaise, in C minor, was free from complaint – and I instantly decided that I much preferred Rafał’s playing over Kissin’s, which by contrast is too forceful. In the same way, I also found the polonaise in A major greatly enjoyable – because Blechacz knows how to control his touch, how to put piano and piece through their  full range of proper dynamics. I’m drooling with anticipation over these pieces, because I’m sure that I’ll be able to hear them again in the autumn.

The three mazurkas were played one after the other, practically on top of each other without pause – I think Rafał wanted to avoid applause in between these shorter pieces. I remember my first mazurka (in D major) – and I didn’t enjoy it at all. But Rafał’s playing brought me home; his recordings for the Chopin Competition 2005 showed me the way, and today his performance of the three confirms my love to be right and proper. They are beautiful and delicate creatures, some of Chopin’s smallest (but by no means least artistic) pets. And Rafał gave them the royal treatment.

The program was rounded off with a jaw-dropping, house-downing (heh) rendition of the third scherzo. No, it was not as fast as so-and-so (probably Horowitz, eh?). No, it was not as “cool” as so-and-so (Horowitz fans must really hate me by now). But that’s not the point: Rafał’s selling points were most convincing, in the soft and lyrical sections of the scherzo, where the pianist “bubbles” down the keyboard in a sparkling show of technique. All this was articulated with the greatest care and the finest technique and the most careful pedaling, to produce an absolute masterpiece which I also hope will be committed to the recording studio soon. I sprang to my feet with the last note, clapping as hard as I’d ever done.

We were lucky. We got one encore – the waltz in A minor. Unfortunately my only two references for this are from the Chopin Competition (that playing wasn’t bad, actually) and from Kissin live at Carnegie Hall (good, but Rafał matched him closely again). It was good. I won’t repeat the other superlatives already exhausted on the other parts of the program.

When we refused to let him off without a second encore, he came to the stage in good humor and (with a big smile) gave us the prelude in A major. It was slow, short, and sweet. It was, as Anne said, “goodbye.” A roar of laughter went up with the last note, only to be quickly drowned by thunderous applause as the audience jumped to its feet one last time.

I was, of course, halfway down the stairs at this point, making for the line to sign CDs. I wasn’t taking any chances. And the rest, I have already told.

In closing, I should note that the Herbst Theatre is a nice venue, but hardly the first-class concert hall that suits Rafał. One can only hope that he may someday play at Davies Symphony Hall, for example, in a solo recital.

I look forward to the new album in the fall and Rafał’s eventual return circle around the states with a new program – I don’t know when that will be, but I anticipate it with a starved wallet and a big smile. God bless you, Rafał Blechacz.

J39M

094: Shape Up

Verb: to shape up (third-person singular simple present shapes up, present participle shaping up, simple past and past participle shaped up) | (intransitive, idiomatic) To improve; to correct one’s bad habits or behavior. | He’d better shape up soon, or he’ll fail the class. | (intransitive, idiomatic) To take shape; to transform into or become. | The fog has vanished and it’s shaping up to be a beautiful day. | 1983, The Right Stuff, 02:04:00 — “Pretty good. A full refrigerator! I can see this afternoon is shaping up just great.”

One of the only wars that has ever been worth waging is the war to love and to do good unto others. A general example takes the form of Christianity, for it is a war to keep belief alive and to propagate undying faith.

Long ago, during my borrowing spree of Astro Boy from the local public library, I came across a powerful image in the work of Osamu Tezuka. I didn’t take any pains to remember it in particular; it just stuck naturally with me. Such was its potency. It has stayed with me ever since, and I have been summoning it to mind more frequently in recent times.

Today, though, I think I finally understand why that beautiful visual persisted in my mind.

This sudden lucidity was brought about by the tragic events at the Boston Marathon on 15 April 2013. I think it is not unfair for me to share some thoughts about this sudden insight.

For the life of me I cannot recall the encapsulating story. I think it was a visual conjured up with a letter to the large-nosed Professor. We see the earth suspended in space, its larger-than-life inhabitants divided into two sharp factions. The dark, evil imps stab and slice at the earth, trying desperately to ruin it. The light custodians of good, armed only with mops and brooms, do their best to scrub away the damage done.

My words are poorly chosen and don’t do the illustration justice. The point is, however, quite clear – Humanity is forever caught in a cycle of evil and good. We’re not always sure who outnumbers who, and we can’t always keep our heads full of  hope. In fact, I’m not sure everybody knows which side they’re on.

There was, however, a specific sort of order to the image. Instead of a cycle of good against evil, it was the other way around: evil and then good. It isn’t so much that every good thing is knocked over and trampled viciously; instead, the forces of evil are continuously repelled by the good. The reaction, and not the initial action, may be evil; but the side of the angels has the last say.

Doing good doesn’t guarantee a generous payout. In fact, you often end up with the short segment of the stick. I myself don’t believe in karma (and I’m not alone on that), but doing good is really just part of being human. This is a concept I grapple with daily – but for the moment, it’s reasonable to conclude that there’s no good reason to cave in to wanton beastliness. We may not be inherently good, but many of us can be good, and beautifully so.

We have yet to see reason to lose faith in humanity.

On a side note, I would like to praise the BBC for a noticeable effort to adhere to proper standards of journalism. Where they weren’t sure, they clearly indicated so by concluding “the details remain sketchy.” Of course, the BBC isn’t privately owned as are the New York Post and CNN. Shame on them for their injudicious reporting this last week.

A side note: r/atheism should start taking notes, too – cherry-picked witch hunts are counterproductive. Just because ONE priest molested a child doesn’t mean ALL priests molest children. On the flip-side, watch out for “No True Scotsman.” Just because ONE Muslim flouted the Quran (which in no uncertain terms forbids murder) doesn’t mean that ALL Muslims are out to destroy the USA.

Sometimes passiveness is the best approach – it is all very well to draw upon your personal experiences to make a decision, but just because your grandfather’s friend was backstabbed by some “traitor-ass slit-eyed chink” (yes, I take offense to the language) doesn’t mean we’re all duplicitous. When you have insufficient data, you must not construe your theories to fit your facts. Only when you have collected enough information can you dare to deduct, eliminate the impossible and shell out the truth. Remember Doyle (Holmes), remember Sagan.

J39M

093: Cum Guzzlers

Noun: cum guzzlers – Plural form of cum guzzler

This is a good time to note that my post titles are generated at random from the English Wiktionary (random entry by language). Otherwise, I run a quiet, family-friendly blog.

A Scandal in Poland

I’ve written a lot about Rafał Blechacz, but very little about a the little kink in one of his recordings – one that I’ve actually alluded to several times.

A little background: I work here with disks six and fifteen of the competition chronicle for The 15th international Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competiton. You can find it from Barnes and Noble, Amazon dot com, and (I think) the DUX website, dux.pl. Disk six contains Blechacz’s “best” selections from rounds one and two of the competition; disk fifteen covers his winner’s recital. Much of the program from disk six carries over into disk fifteen, of course; you can easily tell the difference from the applause that follows every piece on the latter whereas applause only erupts at the very end of disk six, with the final movement of the third piano sonata.

See for yourself, the juxtaposition of the waveforms of the Polonaise in A-flat major, op. 53:

You can see from the labels at the left that these are the performances of the polonaise taken from disks six and fifteen, respectively. I have done nothing to them in this picture: I imported them into Audacity, zoomed out a bit to show them a bit more fully, and took the screenshot. Notice the big blob of sound at the lower right, the end of the disk fifteen recording – that’s the applause. Remember that disk fifteen covers the winner’s recital, where people are allowed to be a lot more excited than they were in rounds one / two.

My point is that these are two distinct recordings. They were supposed to have been taken from different times; they should be different performances. The applause at the end of the disk fifteen recording is proof of that, as is the slight phase-shift between the two: the disk six recording starts in a little later than the disk fifteen one.

I noticed some time ago that there was an oddity in this premise: seeing that these were two different recordings, it wouldn’t make sense for Blechacz to make the same mistake (in the exact same place, in the exact same way) twice. That would be just flat-out weird. You can hear the audible slip for yourself in the final reprise of the “heroic” theme that repeats itself across both disks six and fifteen.

A dreadful thought occurred to me: what if the recordings – from disks six and fifteen – were in fact one and the same, the latter merely with applause appended at the end?

In my quest to uncover the truth, I first aligned the tracks (still working with the polonaise here):

Before and after: lining up the tracks. In each image, from the top, the four players are disk six left track, disk six right track, disk fifteen left track, and disk fifteen right track. Notice how it’s easy to see the lefts and rights line up when the tracks are aligned properly! 

Again, the blob of sound at the right of the disk fifteen recording is applause. Notice how disk six ends with just silence.

At this point in the analysis I was getting a little suspicious. Things were lining up really, really well. As if Blechacz was some living metronome who had managed to play the same piece the exact same way twice in a row. Nobody that I know can do that – not even Blechacz.

The images below illustrate the uncanny similarity between the lefts and rights. (I imported a screenshot into GIMP and cut it up a bit.)

Above is the base image. Already you see that the timing of each recording is strangely close – almost no variation in tempo from one to another. The left and right tracks will now be examined in detail.

The rights (six and fifteen, respectively) are shown above. Notice the alignment and the blob of sound at the lower right (applause). I know that I didn’t line up the tracks perfectly.

The lefts are shown above. Again, notice the alignment and the blob of applause at the lower right.

I think the above are proof enough that something is probably wrong. Goodness knows how I stop just short of worshiping Rafał Blechacz; notwithstanding, I’m almost certain this kind of absolutely perfect adherence to a set tempo is essentially impossible.

The final proof, though, comes with a simple fact of physics – when two waves of equal but opposite amplitude (we take for granted that their frequencies / wavelengths are the same, too), they will cancel out. This is actually how the Bose active noise canceling technology works on some of their (currently) high-end headphones; go check it out.

I will now show that the recordings are one and the same by lining them up (perfectly, this time – I know that I was off in the provided images) and demonstrating that they cancel out. I will not provide screenshots for every step of this way, though (I’m getting tired of this – mad props to tutorial people who provide screenshots for EVERY step in their work); I hope it will suffice for me to describe my method in detail.

Because this is really freaking ridiculously difficult to do while keeping the tracks in stereo, I will mix them down to mono (select the track and go to Tracks > Stereo Track to Mono). Before I settled down to write this sentence, I’d spent maybe half an hour struggling to get things to work out in stereo form; it is NOT worth the difficulty. This experiment is still perfectly reproducible in mono, so you can still verify my results anyway.

The difficult part is actually achieving the perfect alignment to prove that the tracks will cancel each other. Having mixed the tracks down to mono, zoom in really really closely until you can see the individual dots on the waveform as shown below.

Now you can line things up even more accurately than before.

Once you’re sure the alignment is exact, invert one of the tracks of your choice, and hit “play.” If the alignment is right, you will be greeted with the sound of perfect silence – that is, of canceled sound waves. Identical but opposite twins that annihilate each other. This silence continues until the very end of the disk fifteen recording, whereupon shouts of “bravo!” ring out amid a torrent of applause.

Ergo, we have now proved that the separate recordings of the Polonaise in A-flat, marketed as different takes, are in fact one and the same.

I now accuse DUX Records of foul play and demand to know what possessed them to do this to us. I want the REAL winner’s recital.

And so, to that end, I think I’ll keep bombarding them with e-mails until I get some sort of meaningful response. I’m curious as to how this will play out.

J39M

EDIT: Quote of the day.

(02:16:24 AM) SUSAltd: I hunger.
(02:16:30 AM) jeffmeng: for dick
(02:16:36 AM) tetranoir1: and semen
(02:16:50 AM) SUSAltd: I hunger.
(02:17:52 AM) nguyen: hi hunger

J39M

092: Pseudomize

Verb: pseudomize (third-person singular simple present pseudomizes, present participle pseudomizing, simple past and past participle pseudomized) – To pseudonymize

This is a shortlist of things I absolutely want Rafał Blechacz to release in descending order of desire. (I wish he would release them. Even begging doesn’t do much here.)

Sergei Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor. Blechacz himself has commented before that this work can bring a tear to his eye (somebody scour Preludia, I’m not one to cite sources), though elsewhere (I’ve quoted this before) he says that Rachmaninoff is still “too hard.” You’re being modest again, Rafał, we all know you’re lying through your teeth when you say something’s too difficult for you. It just means you’re not sure it’s perfect yet, which is fine, since we want to hear your full output on the work and not some half-assed playing.

F. Chopin – Polonaise in A-flat major, op. 53. This has been released maybe twice in different forms: a studio recording for DUX Records in his debut album Piano Recital (track twenty-five, at the end) and a live recording (also for DUX Records) at the 15th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition. Both these versions are good (I personally prefer the latter, despite the audible slip in the final reprise. (I’ve written DUX about this but they haven’t gotten back to me.) It seems that this particular wish may soon be granted, since Blechacz’s new album of Chopin polonaises is floating out there in the wind.

J.S. Bach – 24 Preludes & Fugues (“The Well-Tempered Clavier”). You’ve said time and again that if you were not a pianist, you would be an organist; you’ve also said (pretty sure – again, to the Preludia-mobile) that Bach is one of your great musical loves. I’ve been looking a long time for a worthy collection to purchase – and I’m convinced that yours must be the only one. If you were ever to record it.

F. Chopin – in descending order, the complete mazurkas, the complete nocturnes, the complete scherzos and impromptus (where’s the fourth scherzo in E major from the competition, eh?) the complete etudes, most piano sonatas (anybody know where the first one is?), the complete waltzes, the miscellaneous works. Just because you should, you know, record the complete works of Chopin.

L.V. Beethoven’s late piano sonatas. Better yet, just a complete cycle of the complete sonatas!

F. Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes, or any other such showpieces. Our CS Professor just recently put up his set of Lazar Berman, and I’m suddenly in the mood for more. You recorded three Liszt etudes for your debut album; why not go full-on and do a whole disk of them…?

PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE WITH A HUGE CHERRY ON TOP.

…so unless he periodically searches Google for himself, I guess this post falls on deaf ears. I’m going to go cry in a corner for about a week until I get to hear him live at Herbst Theater in SF.

J39M

091: Roboids

Noun: roboids – Plural form of roboid

There was a campus-wide internet outage today around midnight. Something close to the core went out, because berkeley.edu was inaccessible for a while, too.

Michael suggested we get out for some fresh air, and so we did. We went halfway up to the Laboratory (stymied by a security booth) and a few steps up a trail (stopped by the promise of mountain lions and potheads). Instead we went around Bowles, looped to the side of the Greek Theater – which I climbed into – and after beating a hasty retreat (I was chased out by a suspicious person), we climbed atop Pimentel and sang some vocal exercises. Following this, Michael and I had a skunk scare. I showed him dehydrated turkey poo, and we bravely plowed through a couple being all lovey-dovey out by the stairs.

When we finally returned, the internet came right back – and it was business as usual.

In other news, Fedora 19 has made its first slip. Things still look okay, but I’ll still err on the side of pessimism. I quote the infobox on the targeted availability date, the content of which seems to have been recently changed:

“Historically Fedora strives to release a new distribution every six months or so, on a Tuesday as close as possible to October 31st and May 1st of each year. Due to problems with Fedora 18 release, we are off the GA target for Fedora 19. In the future releases we would like to try to get closer to the target dates again.”

The alpha release, first slated for Tuesday the 16th, has now been pushed to Tuesday the 23rd. We’re not looking at a beta until the 28th of May, and the final release has ebbed into early July.

Ah, well, I can wait. I think that when the time comes, I really plan to do a clean install – some things went a bit wrong with this one that I could really remedy with a full wipe.

J39M

089: Cominetto

Proper noun: Cominetto – The fourth largest island in the archipelago of Malta.

All right, so I was in the usual big train station. No particular station; just a big one. I tried not to think too hard and looked for a counter. Finding one, I walked over and asked for a map of the station. The lady gave me a stern look. “We don’t have them here. Try the peanut bar.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” I said. Turning away, I smoothly recited the line that I’d practiced ad infinitum in my waking moments: “By and large, rational actions are prohibited here. Act on impulse; direct not, but steer.” A verbal re-iteration of this concept made me feel better. A thought struck me and I turned back to the counter. The woman smiled at me, as if she’d never seen me before. Actually, it was a different lady. So she couldn’t reasonably scowl at me –

“Peanuts?” she asked, offering me a jar. “No, thank you,” I said. “Could I have a table of fares?” She grinned at me. “Of course you can. Don’t forget to share it with all your friends.” She handed me the little booklet, which I opened and speed-read. London, 2.83; Hamburg, 3.15 … I closed my eyes and committed the numbers to memory, collapsing the booklet. “Thanks for the peanuts,” I said. The jar remained sealed on her desk.

I crossed the thoroughfare to the nearest ATM and verbally requested sixty dollars. The machine whirred and whined and was useless. I kicked it (sole only – I was wearing flip-flops) and it promptly dispensed my money. I thumbed through the booklet again ’till I found that same page – London, 1.00, Hamburg, 5.00. I snapped it shut and strode confidently onto the platform.

I had a moment to scratch my head; the platform was all there, but there was no drop-off, no ledge under which railway tracks ran. This part of the station was all on one level. I turned round just in time to realize that the station was all one big level crossing.

The train from London was suddenly in my face, the lights and the noise unbearable –

I sat up in bed, my heart racing. My fingers closed automatically on what would have been the table of fares, which of course was no longer in my hand.

“You’re still letting your dreams get to you,” said Danny, snnnnnkkkkkkkkknnnkkkkk‘ing loudly. He seemed not to know what to do with a stuffy nose. I stirred my tea sullenly. That wasn’t true. They weren’t getting to me. I was just unhealthily interested and unusually involved.

Danny slurped down a long draught. “Stop being so paranoid. They’re by-products of your brain being weird at night – projections of stuff you already knew and experienced.” Skkknnnnnkkk. I chanced a sip of my tea. No, I wasn’t being paranoid. He wasn’t there in my dreams. He couldn’t experience them. He couldn’t know how unnatural things were. I knew the textbook definition of a dream perfectly well; my dreams were definitely not textbook.

Skknnk. Danny rubbed between his eyes, straining his mouth like a surprised guppy. A little squick-squick sound emanated from his nose as his sinuses cleared. The tapioca balls went round and round my cup as I stirred and stirred. There were times – like now – when I really hated talking to Danny.

That night, I counted sheep in the usual way: “By and large, rational actions are prohibited here. Act on impulse; direct not, but steer. By and large, rational actions are prohibited here. Act on impulse; direct not, but steer … ”

The table of fares was in my hand. I went to that familiar page again – London 1.00, Hamburg 5.00. They were the same as when I had last checked them.

I entered the platform a little more carefully this time. No train mowed me down; I was a good two meters away from the nearest set of tracks. I stepped forward and my foot came down on the shiny shoe of the stationmaster. Imagine an grumpy-looking Alec Baldwin, and color his face with anger for having dirtied his shoe and mashed his foot.

“Sorry!” I said, backing away quickly. “Lost control of the trolley.” (I had not a single item of baggage on me. It was the peanuts jar again.) “I’ll shine them some other day!” I yelled back at him, making for the London train. The stationmaster made a few angry steps toward me as the train screeched shrilly, the locomotive blowing steam every which way. The carriages rattled into motion a lot faster than they could have in real life (I tried not to note that) and I ran for it.

Boarding a moving vehicle is almost always a bad idea. Boarding an anachronistic steam train with unnatural traction is just begging to be ground into human puree.

I made the jump, anyhow, latching myself onto the third-class carriage. The stationmaster ran alongside, hands outstretched, making to peel me off the train. My knees bent unconsciously and I catapulted myself up onto the roof, my shoes just clearing the scrabbling fingers of the stationmaster. He shook his fist at me as the London-bound train whisked me far out of his reach.

But when I turned around to get the wind in my face, a chill passed through me – this was not a train for London. It looked more like a train for Siberia, a train out of Doctor Zhivago. We steamed heavily across an empty white expanse of nothingness. The station was already out of sight, leaving only the train snaking across my immense dreamscape, ferrying me to an uncertain destination.

There was no time for dillydallying. I loped unsteadily across the roof (which was surprisingly stable, making my unsteadiness inexcusable), peeking fearlessly here and there over the edge of the train to check the windows. I leaped between cars with an ease that would have shamed a seasoned stuntman.

Finally, I came to a frosted window with a small transparent slit in the middle. I arched my upper body over the edge of the roof (if the train went around the wrong side of a curve now, I was done) and put my eye to the glass, praying that nobody was there.

The lavatory was indeed empty. I swung myself upright, turned round, and put my foot through the glass. (I was still in flip-flops.) I swooped fluidly through the window, leaned forward, and smoothly slid the lock home just as somebody tried the door. There was a sound of confusion out in the corridor, to which I could not think of a response.

“If I have any say on when scripted events happen, I think that this is a good time,” I said aloud. “By and large, rational actions are forbidden here. Act on impulse: direct not, but steer,” I added in an undertone. “Try another bathroom, mate,” I said at normal volume. “I’ll be a while yet.”

The sounds of confusion diminished and disappeared. I breathed out. I tore a bit of toilet paper off and mopped my face (which was completely dry). After a thought, I seized the rest of the roll and stuffed it down my shirt.

A scream echoed through the corridor and footsteps erupted all around. My chance. I unlocked the door and slipped into the corridor with the rush of nosy people headed for the source of distress. I got out my book-of-fares and found my numbers: London 1.00, Hamburg 5.00. No change.

I squeezed through the fore of the crowd, which had now bottlenecked at the compartment of interest. ” ‘scuse me, I’m a Doctor. Pardon me, I’m a Doctor – ” I murmured, trying to put on a professional air.

I squeezed between the last two men in the door and found myself standing over a dead rabbit (its neck was wrung) and a girl bent over her deceased pet, sobbing wretchedly.

Well, she wanted it to sound wretched. I couldn’t believe anybody was being taken in by her little act. I certainly wasn’t. I stooped, hands on knees, and whispered, “Come on, Miss, he’s gone now. The best we can do now – ”

She looked at me. My hand went to the table of fares in my pocket. Whatever part of my brain was responsible for generating the dreams had a nasty habit of investing far too much detail – uncomfortable levels of detail, for whatever parsed my dreams in my conscious self – on the female cast. I would have blushed in real-life.

The corners of her eyes were dry. Her make-up wasn’t running. Her hair was still tidy. No sign of a handkerchief or other ladylike tear-wiper. A-ha. What are you playing at, Miss?

Her expression hardened and I leaped to my feet – her mouth opened, and I pushed my way into the crowd –

She accused me. It’d been a setup. She wanted the roll of toilet paper. It was valuable. I tucked it tighter still into my shirt and ran faster, trying to outrun the call to seize me. Information travels slower than I do in dense mediums, and so I easily broke free of the crush, forgoing my washroom-window entry route and bursting into the adjoining car, locking myself into that bathroom instead.

I gathered my thoughts. Footsteps skittered outside, but nobody knocked on the door. It hadn’t occurred to them that I was inside this bathroom. I glanced at the toilet paper hanging there: it was not special, not as much as the one in my shirt. I pulled out my table of fares – London 1.00, Hamburg 5.00. Still no change.

I waited for the footsteps to quiet (I didn’t want my escape to be immediately noticeable) and punched through the window. I apologized to whatever patron saint of water closets there might be for my second transgression and climbed out and up, back onto the train roof.

I blinked. No more Doctor Zhivago. This was now a cross between The Polar Express and Uncharted 2. The train snaked around a snowy mountain, the track built inches from the edge that went way down to oblivion. The roof was suddenly a lot shakier.

I again consulted the table of fares – and indeed, London .43, Hamburg .57: I was done here.

A tunnel came out of nowhere. I didn’t have a chance to duck. The train was going too fast. I was going to be slammed into the side of a mountain at high speed.