Bad dream, and the brilliance that is Pop Rocks

By Jayson Jacoby May 27, 2011 12:52 pm

As a person who has mastered little besides the repetitive pattern of respiration required to survive, I’ve never been especially annoyed at how often I dream about failing at some task.

It seems, based on my conversations with other people, that I’m plagued by an inordinate number of these nightmares.

Although I suppose this might be an illusion, the result of these unpleasant dreams being so abnormally vivid that they linger a good while and thus seem more frequent than they actually are.


The most common scenario is one which I suspect has afflicted most people, at least on occasion.

I’m at school, sometimes high school but more often a university, and it occurs to me, rather suddenly, that I can’t remember which classroom I’m supposed to be in.

Almost simultaneously I realize that, although it’s finals week, I’ve missed pretty much every class for the whole of the term.

This is, understandably, a terrible feeling.

And worse yet, it’s a terribly authentic one, at least until the grogginess of REM sleep dissipates.

But at least these subconscious disasters are, in the main, private affairs.

In the dream I’m usually alone. There’s no sense that my colossal screw-up is a public spectacle.

The dream I had the other night, though, was much more disturbing than my usual finals week anxiety episode.

I was attending an event in a massive arena, a place on the order of the Rose Garden.

As with most dreams, certain of the details were murky.

I never precisely understood the purpose of the event, for instance. But I knew, in that instinctive way common to dreams, that I had a job to do.

A man handed me a slip of paper that showed the sort of schedule you would find at a business convention or trade show at which there are many speakers.

My name was printed on it.

This man nodded to me and I started walking down a wide aisle toward a stage. I already felt uncomfortable because my shirt collar was askew, but I was too self-conscious to reach back and straighten it with all those people staring at me.

When I got up on the stage I looked up and in front of me stood a towering wall, maybe 50 feet high. Attached to the wall were dozens of rows of gold plaques, each etched with a five-digit number. There was a dash between the second and third digits, as with a Social Security number.

Below each number was a person’s name.

A different man held out a sheet of paper. It contained several rows of five digit numbers, so small I had to bend down and squint to make them out. And there was no dash between the second and third digits.

The first man, the one who had given me the schedule, now held a microphone. He announced, in the booming voice of a politician on the stump or a televangelist on the money pitch, that he would commence to read a thousand numbers.

The second man was to act as my spotter — he would point on the sheet of paper to the number the first man called, and then help me find the corresponding plaque with that number on the soaring wall.

(Neither man explained this process; the dream, though realistic, was like a condensed book.)

I was supposed to read to the audience the name beneath each number.

The microphone man bellowed the first number. Almost immediately I felt a nauseating flutter in my stomach, the first stage of that brand of panic that uniquely afflicts a person who’s being watched by thousands of people and is morally certain he’s getting ready to botch whatever task is coming.

After what seemed like an agonizing interval, I followed the spotter’s finger to the appropriate plaque on the wall.

As an indication of how lifelike this fiction was, I briefly felt relieved, as though this job perhaps was not beyond my abilities after all.

Only then did I notice something peculiar about the names.

Although the alphabet employed was clearly English (none of those Cyrillic characters that look so funny to foreign eyes), every name seemed to consist mainly of a long series of consonants. These were especially rich in the Ks and Zs common to Czech and Polish surnames.

Except the Czechs and the Poles do things with combinations of consonants that can convince an American, and in particular an American who was taught phonics in elementary school, to use his fingers to pierce his own eardrums.

(How, for instance, “Krzyzewski” comes out as “Shushefskee” I have no idea. What I do know is that if I had never heard the correct pronunciation I’d never have come up with it on my own.)

Naturally I woke up right then, at the cusp of my grand embarrassment.

It was not the first time I’ve awakened feeling almost liberated, like a person who gets a call from the doctor’s office saying the first biopsy result was a false-positive.

But none of these past episodes was so palpable, or so powerful, as this one.

I suppose I could ask a psychologist to have a go at explaining this difference.

I can’t, at any rate, think of a good reason why botching some Silesian’s name, even in front of a crowd, would be worse than, say, walking into a final on European military history, picking up the test and wondering, with the innocence of an infant, who this Napoleon character is.

.        .        .

Turns out I’m older than Pop Rocks.

This surprises me slightly.

Pop Rocks, the candy allegedly capable of simultaneously exploding your stomach and rotting your teeth, has always seemed to me a symbol of a more distant generation than my own, an era before Americans decided that nobody should actually die until a major organ or two gives out, like an old bearing.

An era when we sold fake candy cigarettes to kids not as a relatively benign substitute for the real thing, but as a form of training, so that they wouldn’t look stupid when they turned 18 and graduated to Marlboros or, better still, unfiltered Camels.

You were expected to smoke then.

An American adult, and particularly a male American adult, who didn’t get through at least a pack a day was looked at suspiciously, a man who could not be trusted.

And probably was a Communist besides.

Back then, before anyone except his parents had heard of Ralph Nader, parents weren’t required, by force of law and public humiliation, to strap their infant into a seat designed to the same impact standards as a nuclear reactor.

Newborns made their first car trip held in their mothers’ arms, the idea being that this was the safest place in a crash. Apparently we used to expect more of moms, including the ability to shelter their babies even while smashing through a windshield and bouncing off the asphalt at 50 mph.

Anyway, that carefree period seems like the fertile ground that would nurture such a purportedly combustible candy as Pop Rocks.

But in fact the curious confection was not concocted until 1976.

That, of course, was also the nation’s bicentennial. This seems to me a fitting coincidence. I can’t offhand think of a product that better epitomizes American ingenuity and enterprise being applied to the ridiculous and non-nutritive.

I was alerted to Pop Rocks’ 35th birthday by an email which also announced, in capital letters rendered in a bold font, that the candy’s maker, that very month, was re-releasing its original grape flavor.

(The month was March, but I’ve been putting off publishing this column for more pressing, but perhaps equally inane, matters. Donald Trump’s political career, for instance.)

What happened to this elusive fruity elixir, the email does not explain, except to say that the recipe was “lost for nearly three decades.”

(I suspect disco was involved in this larceny, specifically either one of the Gibb brothers or a member of K.C.’s Sunshine Band.)

The email is also regrettably silent on the matter of how the famous grape flavor was rediscovered, or who made this momentous find.

Gourmands everywhere will not mind, I’m sure, so great is their glee at the triumphant return of grape Pop Rocks.

As for the legacy of this product, I believe that was cemented even before the grape secret went missing.

The story of Pop Rocks and the disintegrating stomach is, I think, the greatest of the urban legends.

It carries an implicit moral message — scarfing candy is a sort of blasphemy because it abuses your body, which of course is a temple.

Yet there’s also an inherent plausibility to the myth, one that demands experimentation.

A couple of Mentos, after all, can cause some pretty impressive pyrotechnics when dropped into a two-liter bottle of diet soda.

(Besides which, the lab supplies, even adjusted for inflation, are cheap — a can of soda and a packet of Pop Rocks.)

The email, despite its predictable exaggerations (describing Pop Rocks as “an ingredient in gourmet food recipes” being the most egregious), in my view is warranted in referring to Pop Rocks as “a mainstay of American pop culture.”

And so long as there are kids with access to pocket change and carbonated drinks, and the courage to mess around with their unseen innards, so it shall remain.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.