The Year I Stopped Worrying and Started to Dream

By Thomas von Steinaecker

Translation Bradley Schmidt

The Year I Stopped Worrying and Started to Dream

That October I noticed that the clients sitting on the chairs in the lobby needed longer than usual to pull themselves away from the television when I picked them up. They were still trying to catch a glimpse of the pictures while I greeted them, images that hadn’t interested much of anyone previously: press conferences, German Financial Minister Steinbrück by himself, Chancellor Merkel by herself, Merkel with Steinbrück, Merkel with Foreign Minister Steinmeier, all of them making faces that, having attended the seminar “Smile When You’re Winning – the Fine Art of Facial Expressions”, made me doubt that even they believed in the effectiveness of their aid measures. Before that and afterwards there were always the same pictures from the US Stock Market – brokers in white shirts and sleeves rolled up, making calls, staring at monitors, yelling across the room, index curves pointing down, and always the same sun-soaked family homes with front yards and the sign “4 Sale,” – “4” red, “Sale” blue.

Sometimes I sensed the clients’ need to chat about the non-pictures they had just seen on the television, and I enjoyed engaging them with a concerned expression on my face. That’s what I’m there for. “Terrible, isn’t it?”, “What’ll come next?”, “Is your company affected by that at all?” and so on. Especially Type 1 and Type 2 clients were ready to show more emotion than usual. I was capable of establishing relationships.

Ben Bernanke stated: “This is not an S-sized crisis. This is not an M-sized crisis. This is an XXL crisis.” But maybe it was Alan Greenspan who said those or some similar phrases back then. I’m increasingly confused about who and when and so on.
I, and by that I mean insurers in general, was clearly on the right side. We don’t gamble. We, and when I say “we”, I mean the actuaries, had done our homework. No risk. We had learned the necessary lessons from 2001. Don’t forget: We retain our bonds until the end of the term, just like every other normal insurer. Stay calm. We don’t carry products “with profit”. Those are Anglo-American conditions. Steady. Already forgotten? This is Germany.
Chatting about the possibility of a total collapse of the world economy with a client on the way into my office, I would often pause for a moment in front of Ms. Aktan’s desk to secretly turn towards the television and glance at those pictures that really mattered for us. I waited for the weather. We could recite all of the names in the right order that we would never name our children, because they always reminded us of unpaid overtime, and despite all objectivity, the tangibly emotional telephone calls with our reinsurers where it was unclear if we were the famous drop in the ocean that would mean their financial ruin. Andrew, Mireille, Daria, Lothar.
When I saw Willy Scholz running down the hall to the elevator, not walking with a spring in his step, but really running, his tie swinging inappropriately back and forth, and I immediately thought I could hear unintelligible yells from Claims Adjustment, I checked the headlines online with the firm conviction that it had happened after all, the disaster of the year. But nothing had happened, nothing was happening, McCain continued to trail Obama, an Austrian cyclist tested positive, there was a plane crash in Nepal, killing twelve Germans, otherwise no panicked calls from established companies, as I had seen after Lothar, no emails with damage claims. Seconds later I ran into Scholz, Serdar, and Martin along with several agents from headquarters in front of the water cooler, which surprised me, since they had apparently convened for an unofficial meeting, without having informed me, the deputy manager.
With outstretched arm an agent from the headquarters, maybe about six-foot-six, held a piece of paper in the air, and one or two shorter reps circled him. Now and again they jokingly tried to reach for the paper and snatch it from him while the others stood around chuckling with arms crossed. It was only as I came closer that I understood what the giant was reading with a grin when he wasn’t being attacked.
“Cigarette Trash All-Round Protection.”
Some of the agents shook their heads. Those must be the suggestions from product development for the 4th Quarter of 2009. Officially they shouldn’t be announced before the end of the year. There had been plans for an all-round cigarette package for a while, concerning bars where, because of the smoking ban, cigarette trash piled up despite ashtrays in front of the entrance. Both the ashtrays and the cigarette trash were as risk factors new and not to be underestimated.
“Third-party shift…”
“What?”
“Louder!”
“What gets shafted?”
“Third-party shifting bankruptcy protections package.”
While Serdar whinnied and Martin chortled whenever the giant took a breath, Scholz whispered: “Get out of here! You can’t sell stuff like that. The names will be changed, right?” His jacket sleeves were rolled up and exposed his wrists, catching my eye. The first time since I had joined the department in Munich, I was looking for a wristband armband from the dubious rewards trip – but all I could see was his Breitling watch.
The giant continued: “Anti-terror…”
Widespread groans.
Serdar: “Oh, yeah, we haven’t ever had that!” He imitated the horn sound from a quiz show.
Someone from headquarters formed his hands to a megaphone and acted as if he was calling out suggestions to the product developers on the 29th floor: “Earthquakes! Why don’t you suggest earthquakes!”
“Even better,” another yelled: “Meteors!”
“Locusts! Volcanoes!” said the first agent.
The other one: “Ten biblical plague prevention! Protect yourself from the wrath of God!”
I had to laugh despite myself, a cackling noise, as always was the case when I really found something authentically funny; my mother had often cackled. I bent forward, laid my hand on my neighbor’s padded shoulder and, after I had calmed myself, with blushed cheeks, I could feel it; I looked at the profile of man about 25-years-old, who looked at me out of the corner of his eye desperately trying to keep on laughing and cover up his confusion. I quickly removed my hand, no one had noticed anything, they kept chatting. I returned to my desk to work on the mountain of small claims reports that grew relentlessly.

THIS IS YOUR DAY
TODAY YOUR NAME IS: WINNER
THERE’S ALWAYS ROOM AT THE TOP
(DANIEL WEBSTER)

I was prepared to demonstrate my qualities as an agent. After more than ten years of work experience, I wanted more. I was hungry. I started my computer and entered my new password, “Sseinrem66”. I picked up my 11:15 appointment from the reception. Serdar came towards me with a client, chatting jokingly with him in Turkish. In my office I asked my client: “How can I help you?” The registration form, where the client’s issue was recorded under point number two, flickered. I wanted to hear it from him. The client was a “worrier”. I pushed a brochure over to him and circled the number “100%” with a pen. The sales pitch ended without a deal. Smiling with exceptional friendliness, I accompanied the client back to the reception. In my office I disposed of the abandoned brochure and noted the client’s name on a Post-it note with the reminder “follow up”. I arranged the two pencils on my desk at a 90 degree angle because I suddenly had the firm conviction that if I did not do this, then the day would end without a deal. I watered the spider plants. I met Serdar in the break room and asked: “Well?” and he said, “Well what?” I asked: “How’s it going?” He said: “Same-same.” I received a call from a client who reported a damage claim. The client asked for Ms. Sandmann. Extremely friendly, I answered that I was her successor. I opened the form for the damage report and went through it with the client. There were too few lines under point three. The course of events had to be recorded on a separate page. Extremely friendly, I said goodbye with the words: “We’ll be in touch with you shortly.” After the conversation I checked if this was a premium client or a B1 client and because this wasn’t the case and I didn’t have any additional time capacity at my disposal, I passed the report to a claims adjustor. I walked to the reception, looked at the clock next to the elevator and went back to my office. At the Tuesday meeting Scholz instructed Serdar, Martin, and me to pay special attention to the cross-selling of the CAVERE product Package X, which had been introduced that summer. He said it was our problem child. At the Wednesday meeting I was greeted by an agent from headquarters, whom I hadn’t seen before, with the words: “So this is the tough new agent.” The whole meeting I pondered whether it wouldn’t have been advisable to parry with a comment like, “And that means you’re my girly new colleague,” to make clear from the beginning that I paid attention to things. I decided against it. I usually don’t overreact. I have a sense of humor. I considered if I should place the two pencils on my desk next to each other because in that moment I had the feeling that then and only then would I conclude a B1 deal this week, and at the same moment I admonished myself to not get superstitious again, as I had been as a girl, like when my parents were gone and I believed I had to go up and down the steps ten times, precisely ten times, so that my mother and father would return safe and sound, otherwise they would have a deadly accident. At the Thursday meeting the agent from headquarters was there again. He was extremely friendly. Over the course of the meeting I wondered if his conduct wasn’t especially treacherous, acting extremely friendly now, but actually continuing to be in ironic mode. I decided to be on guard. I was hungry. I watered the spider plants. I placed the pencils on my desk at a 180 degree angle to each other. I picked up my 11:30 client at the reception. The woman’s name, as I only noticed then, was the same as mine, Renate Meissner. She looked puzzled when I introduced myself. I said it wasn’t a joke. She said it was amusing. I checked if my pencils were at a 180 degree angle to each other. Serdar came towards us in the hallway. He stared at an invisible point, laughed, and was apparently having a conversation with a client. He was alone. He gesticulated. He was speaking into a headset. In my office I asked the client, “How can I help you?” The registration form, where the client’s issue was recorded under point number two, flickered. In the course of the consultation the client proved to be a “performer”. I pushed a brochure over to him and underlined the words “security,” “49%,” and “advantages” with a pen. I recommended the CAVERE package X. The client acted as if he hadn’t heard me. The deal did not live up to my expectations. Smiling extremely friendly, I accompanied the client back to the reception. I noticed that my new password contained the term “REM”. In my office I wrote the client’s name on a Post-it with the note “follow up”. I looked over this week’s remaining appointments. There were no potential B 1 clients. At the Wednesday meeting we compared the deals of the past week. Scholz instructed Serdar, Martin, and me to pay special attention to cross-selling the CAVERE product Package X, which had been introduced that summer. He said it was our problem child. I picked up my 5:15 client at the reception. I studied the print of Hopper’s “Sun in an Empty Room” on the opposite wall. I picked up my 9:45 client at the reception. I didn’t have any more time at my disposal. I ate a granola bar with wild berry flavor.

I believe it was the 44th CW when I suddenly found myself in front of an oversized world map on a wall in the break room, consciously registering it for the first time. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that the continents on the map were not yellow, brown, and green according to their vegetation. Instead, they were colored in various shades of red according to the regional frequency of natural disasters. Bright magnet chips were on individual countries without a recognizable system. It dawned on me that after more than ten years in this line of business, for the first time I actually now had before me the game that I had always only heard rumors about; it was said that there were avid fans from the business insurance department. “You ever played before?” a voice behind me asked. Serdar stood at the door.
“Disaster Monopoly,” I said.
“Disaster Monopoly,” said Serdar. “You know the rules ….?” “Remind me,” I said. “… So you don’t know the rules,” Serdar said. He sauntered up to the map, his face noticeably lighting up. “It really couldn’t be easier. Maximum of ten players. In January each of them makes what in DM circles is called ‘the prophecy’: So you place your thirteen DM tokens, everyone has twelve DM tokens and an additional thirteenth token, you place them on the countries where you think a natural disaster might happen. Look.” He motioned to one of the green tokens engraved with the number five and below that, a small DM®. “The number on the token designates the month in which the player says: okay, something’s going to happen. There’ll be a disaster. For example, when a hurricane rolls over the US in September and there’s a token there with the number 10, the player doesn’t get anything. Of course it’s completely stupid to bet on countries that are completely red like Australia or the US. There are only loads of cash where there are tectonic, gravimetric, climatic, or epidemic phenomena, against all expectations. It’s up to you how much you bet. Hmm.” Serdar pushed his hands into his pants pockets and gazed at the world map like a general studying the movements of his troops. “I have to say, it’s a little meager for me at the moment. Put everything on Germany. January to December. At least there was the cyclone Emma in March. I made a killing then. After that it looks a little thin. Man, a real worst case scenario, in Saxony, for example, would be great. I tell you what: someday we’re really going to be shaken up too. It’s just a matter of time. And then I’ll be the champ here.”
“Can you actually bet on Space too?” I deflected. I hadn’t noticed any irony in Serdar’s speech. Even if he didn’t let it show, I was sure that he had lost a certain percentage of his personal assets, invested in bonds, through the slump in the markets over the last few days. People like Serdar invest in stocks; his risk appetite could be characterized as high.
He suddenly tilted his head and turned it towards me while he fixed his gaze on me. “Space? What made you think of Space?”
“Well,” I explained, “Just one example. If something like the Challenger happens…”
“Challenger?” He raised his bushy black eyebrows.
“Challenger,” I explained. “1986. Space shuttle. Crash.” All at once, I remember that morning before school when my mother suddenly turned up the radio and during breakfast I stopped and asked what was wrong and my mother only interrupted me with “hush, hush”. Then we stood next to each other incredulously, and whispered the newscaster’s sentences to each other: “exploded,” “”during the launch,” “all occupants dead,” “including a teacher.” My mother reached for my hand. At the time she was just a little older than I am now. She would only die someday, in an unimaginable future. Two of the three channels showed pictures of the accident. When there was nothing on ARD, ZDF, and the regional television station, then there was nothing on.
“Sorry, I’m going to have to pass on that one,” Serdar answered. But essentially it wouldn’t be such a bad idea. I’d have to ask Scholz where you would put the token…”
To get rid of the thought of my mother, I followed a sudden inspiration and asked: “Wackersdorf?”
“Three Mile Island.” Pause, “yeah.” Serdar took his hands out of his pants pockets and held them undecidedly in the air for a second before crossing them on his chest. “What about it?”
“Three Mile Island?” I insisted. “Does it ring a bell?”
“No.” He closed his eyes and had a wide grin but noticeably irritated.
“What are you getting at?”
“Dan Aykroyd,” I said.
Serdar shook his head.
“Tara Calico, Khomeini,” I said. “Oliver North, Ben Johnson, Mathias Rust, Tears for Fears.” Each name was a memory.
“Well then. Best dishes.” Serdar gave up. The corners of my mouth went up and signaled my upper hand. I noticed that I had involuntarily imitated Lisa. He turned his strong back to me and strolled slowly towards the door – then he turned on his heel once more.
“Glitches?” he said.
It took some effort to keep the corners of my mouth up. It wasn’t clear to me what Serdar was referring to. “Glitches!” He noticed that he had unexpectedly won in the end and threw an uninterpretable glance my way before disappearing down the hall.
At the end of the 44th CW I received a phone call, the consequences of which I could not anticipate at the time. The number on the display of my Blackberry looked familiar without me being able to say immediately why. It wasn’t Walter, at any rate.
“Ms. Meissner?” a man at the other end said.
“Yes?” I answered, unsure of whether it what a client or a colleague.
“Utz.”
“Mr. Utz.”
I made an effort to find the tone of voice we had used to say goodbye two weeks before.
“It’s so nice that you …”
“Sure,” Utz interrupted me. “I’ve made a decision. I’ve picked you.” Those are the happiest moments, I admonished myself to stay calm.
“Well, that’s wonderful.” I used a submissive tone of voice that Walter could never stand in our relationship. “Then my portfolio was able to convince you. That’s really…”
“That’s okay”
“… a good decision…”
“The insurance has been purchased, Ms. Meissner. Now we can talk like normal people. But I understand. You’re under a lot of pressure from your boss. That’s why I’ll tell you straight up: I was by and large satisfied with you. Your competitors from Allianz weren’t so capable. You just shouldn’t look so grimly determined, like at the beginning. My setter looks like that sometimes – but you?”
I forced myself to audibly adjust to his laughter, which immediately became a cough, so that he didn’t think I didn’t have a sense of humor. The rabbit on my computer blinked at me.
I gulped. “So you think I was too determined?” I sounded charming.
“Well. But as I said, you’re under pressure from above. I know that.”
While Utz was speaking, I had time and again pleasantly said “yes” and “oh, yeah,” although I sensed an uneasiness rising in me. With his words he was starting to open up a room inside of me that he wasn’t permitted. “Yes, I know exactly what you mean.” I had the immediate urge to ask Utz what it had been like for him when his parents died in an accident. Although I frequently dealt with people, I didn’t know anyone for whom a car accident played a similar role as with Utz – and me. It was quite possible that he would have understood me if I had told him about the unpleasant repercussions that my grandmother’s disappearance had had for me and my family.
“Why don’t we do this, Mr. Utz: I’ll fax you the contract, let’s say in a half-an-hour, you take your time and read through it look over the whole thing at your own speed and if you have any question, just let me know and then I’d say we’ll see each other once more here to conclude the contract, Mr. Utz, okay?”
After the call I stood at the window for a long time and observed a smoker down on the plaza who brought the cigarette to her mouth, exhaled smoke, examined her shoes, bent slightly towards the ground, straightened up, brought the cigarette to her mouth, and so on. After that I wrote Scholz, who may have been in his office next door but couldn’t be heard, a short email that we, I wrote “we”, had won Utz over as a client.

On that Thursday or Friday evening on the way home a warm downdraft blew at great speed down from the Alps across the foothills all the way to Munich. The city’s lights shimmered, turning the clouds above me magenta. “Did you see their ugly long faces when they had to ask for help?” The voice belonged to one of the Tom or Stephans from IT, about half – a guess – of the employees there had those names. “I’d say their days are numbered…” Tom/Stephan looked toward the bank we were just walking by.
“People will have to rethink things, I’m fairly sure of that,” I said. “Ethics will play a role again. Sincerity will play a role again. This is a kind of new start … like in 1989 in a certain way…” I wasn’t paying any more attention to Tom/Stefan. It was as if I was talking to myself. It’s possible that I only carried on the conversation on my way home as an inner dialogue.
On the evening of that Friday in the 44th CW or another evening in that week in the tram I quickly wondered if it would make sense to invest in gold the small inheritance that my mother left me and I had kept in my checking account. I became dizzy at the thought of that in the worst case, the probability of which did not appear to be low, all that she had worked for years to save, all at once might not be worth the value of a used car or a two-week Lanzarote Club vacation. The fashion models on the advertisement in the shop windows the tram drove by, decorated for Christmas, gazed at the observer from a time that had moved far away within a few days, from another era.

After I had lined up seven white Lyrica pills next to me in equal distances on the parquet floor at home, I turned the Sony on that Walter had given me last January, a Caesar salad on my lap. Once again I noticed that I always watched television precisely when the programmers assumed fundamentally different average viewers than me, who were either expecting comedy or action. I paused briefly with my fork in front of my open mouth when the news about the earthquake in Northern Pakistan came in the late edition. But when I realized that this was an “M” catastrophe at most, with no effect on the insurance business here in Germany – none of my clients owned commercial property in Pakistan – I finished eating my salad. In addition, the pictures were of poor quality; the scenes of the Pakistanis clawing at the rubble were interchangeable. All of this could have been reruns of the pictures taken years ago during the Iraq war. I tried to have empathy for a woman of my age who, covered by a burka, beat her chest in grief and made loud shrieking noises. I was aware of her desperate situation. Nevertheless it was impossible for me to establish an emotional connection with her. I changed the channel. I was slightly more affected by the politicians struggling to keep their composure and the line of the people of Klagenfurt breaking into tears while waiting to sign the condolences books, mourning the beloved right-wing politician Jörg Haider’s accidental death with Austrian accents that I loved. In the end, it may have been around midnight, I couldn’t get the deal with Utz and the telephone conversation out of my head, and I removed that silver disc out of my DVD case, the one that Walter had burned me after I had requested it repeatedly. I was normally calmed by the viewing of unique XXL catastrophes from, the last 25 years, let’s say. Number 1: September 11, number 2: the 2004 tsunami, number 3: hurricane Katrina, number 4: the second war in Iraq, and so on.
Now and again the images of the worst events remind me of when I first heard of them, incredulous, gripped by unexpected excitement, in front of the television with Lisa, with my mother, telephoning with my brothers, or with the people with whom I usually have hardly any private contact at all, like colleagues. On the afternoon of September 11, 2001, when for some odd reason I was at home, the door bell rang – the World Trade Center was already smoking, but hadn’t collapsed yet – at the door of my apartment in Frankfurt. A man in a suit stood there and asked if he could watch television, he was just returning from work, lived in Hanau, but just wanted one thing, to watch television. We spent the following hours together on my couch, swapping theories about who was behind the attacks, what would happen next, etc., laughed, were silent, once the man wiped a tear from his check, completely unashamed, right next to me. That evening he said goodbye, thanked me again, and we hugged each other. On days like this everything that had previously appeared to be an essential part of my life lost its meaning in a single moment. It’s as if gravity and with it all of the laws of probability were suspended. What the future may bring, what will be tomorrow or the day after that, is completely open.

That Friday or Saturday evening I decided on the 9/11 episode on Walter’s DVD. To be honest, I was a little disappointed at the beginning of the new millennium because the first year didn’t seem to be at all different from the previous one. For years we had lived toward the year 2000. But after the big parties were over and the months had past without noteworthy events, it suddenly appeared to me as if we were now living in an unending present, as if the future had disappeared. I believe that’s why I wasn’t the only for whom that bright September day seemed to be the delayed fulfillment of a promise of something great, something shocking.
And so that’s how it came that, sitting on my bed that evening, the empty salad bowl next to me, the television glowing blue as if from the inside, I sensed a short-lived wish for a new, even more spectacular disaster that would make everything stand still.

 

From Das Jahr, in dem ich aufhörte, mir Sorgen zu machen, und anfing zu träumen by Thomas von Steinaecker, © S. Fischer Verlag, 2012.
Translation © Bradley Schmidt