Thursday, February 14, 2008

NINGAS-COGON, American Idol Style

Okay, I admit it! I am a fan of that reality/talent show, American Idol. I am infected with that contagious, dangerous disease called the American Idol Syndrome, the symptoms of which include rearranging my schedule so that every Tuesday and Wednesday night I can watch my favorite contestants uninterrupted, and finding myself belting out such cheesy songs as A Moment Like This and Bridge Over Troubled Water. I look forward to Tuesday nights like a drug addict waiting for his next fix and I sit on the edge of my seat on Wednesday nights waiting for the ultimate high to kick in: watching who will get the boot. I realized with horror that I was in the advanced stage of the disease when I started using “Dawg!’ as part of my vocabulary. And uh, I bought Clay Aiken’s CD as well—before he sold his soul to that Broadway Devil, Spamalot.

This season, we are blessed with another Filipino-heritaged contestant who made it to the top twenty four: Ramiele Malubay. Boy, did that make my day! And brought back memories of an American Idol season when we had two Filipinas in the finals: Camille Velasco and Jasmine Trias.

In the first week of that particular AI season, our two representatives eluded being included in the bottom three, the place reserved for the three contestants who receive the lowest phone-in/text-in votes. We have the Filipino-American community to thank for that. E-mail messages encouraging us to phone-in or text-in our votes for Camille and Jasmine poured in like crazy during the first week. Second week came and to my dismay, Camille was one of the three in the bottom. Still, to my relief, she was not eliminated. Week four came and, to my horror, Camille and Jasmine were both in the bottom three! What’s going on? What happened to the Fil-Ams’ initial rousing support for these two contestants?

Eventually, Camille was voted off… and Jasmine was soon back in Hawaii, singing in the Mahalo Karaoke Lounge. No, actually, she made it big in the Philippines.

Back to that AI season, I refused to believe that callers vote off the least talented of the bunch. In my opinion, they’re all talented singers, all future wannabe pop-stars, all equally deserving of their 15 minutes of fame. Therefore, I believe that viewers vote for their emotional favorites and yes, pride in one’s heritage plays a part in that. I present as proof those countless e-mails I received from Filipino-American groups exhorting us to vote for these two Filipino-heritaged contestants. But just as those e-mails surged like a turbulent tropical storm in the first week of The American Idol, they quickly ebbed like the tide returning to the sea. Soon, I rarely got such e-mails.

I call this phenomenon Ningas-Cogon, American Idol style.

Cogon, a kind of grass native to the Philippines, grows to about three feet tall and depending on its usage, is either a weed or a crop. To farmers, it is a pesky weed; to nipa hut builders, it is a source of excellent roofing material. Cogon quickly burns, giving off intense heat and flames, then quickly dissipates. We call this process ningas-cogon. Ningas-cogon is also the way we describe the typical Filipino commitment: intense and strong in the beginning, but swiftly going downhill, fading away, waning focus, losing interest.

Ningas-cogon is, uh, not my bowl of rice.

Indeed, what good does it do to embark on a new project with all the enthusiasm and energy of someone who is on Viagra, only to lose interest halfway through the work?

I am just as guilty about this ningas-cogon mentality as the next Filipino. There were several writing projects that I abandoned before the proverbial ink even dried on the paper. Heck, there was a book project that I quit after writing only the prologue. At some point, I realized I couldn’t finish anything, yet I kept starting, starting, starting. One might say I had a really bad case of startitis.

But I’m getting better.

I think the most eye-opening thing that helped me ‘cure’ my ningas-cogon attitude was realizing that no matter what we do, something always manages to come up and get in the way of what we are trying to do. So to avoid being distracted, I started putting down on paper a list of things to do on a particular day, a particular week. I prepare the next day’s list at night before I go to sleep. I set deadlines that I have to meet and dutifully check them off when they are met. Those check marks, believe it or not, provide the impetus to move along, to finish something started. They’re like little prizes I collect for doing something good. Well, several checkmarks later, I finished a novel!

I know it sounds so easy on paper but sticking to a commitment really becomes easier when you monitor your daily progress. Think of it as the ‘commitment police’, the force who’ll keep you focused in your quest to be productive and accomplish goals.

Hopefully, by the time this article comes out, our very own Ms. Malubay is still in the running, not falling victim to our ningas-cogon mentality. If not, well there’s a lesson to be learned here I think.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

GOSSIP, GIRL! (Tsismis)

“Psssttt…it’s healthy to gossip, with Listerine!” That was the headline of my mock print advertisement for an advertising class project way back in college where I graduated Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communications. I thought that headline said it all: a face-to-face gossipy conversation is not all that bad if your breath is mouthwash-fresh. I got an “A+” for that but my teacher scribbled, at the bottom of the mock-up print ad, that “Gossip, Listerined-breath or not, is bad for you.”

My initial reaction to this was, “So are cigarettes but we keep smoking away anyway”. I fumed and called my teacher ‘hypocrite’ under my breath. Then I told a classmate, while puffing away on our Marlboros, about this and added that the scribbled note might have been this teacher’s way of staging her closeted attraction towards me. Tsismis!

Though not everyone smokes, pretending that not everyone gossips is a travesty. We all do it. As I’ve mentioned in my book Not My Bowl Of Rice, “Filipinos have a predilection to gossip, to spread rumors, to frighten and titillate one another with dire warnings, salacious gossip, and preposterous allegations. Gossiping has practically been our national pastime for centuries. We gossip in beauty parlors. In restaurants. Restrooms. On buses. In supermarket lines. In bars. In funeral homes during wakes. On the phone. With our drivers. With our office mates. With our doctors. And sometimes, even with our priest confessors. A Filipino’s day is jam-packed with these sometimes heartwarming, oftentimes heartbreaking, maybe true, maybe entirely false gossips.”

Tsismis is indeed, everywhere, just keep your ears and eyes open. And everyone is fair game in gossip. You hear your co-worker talk about your boss’ new and expensive -- as in, how can he really afford it with his derisory salary? -- Lexus. You read a blind item in a purportedly respectable newspaper about a hunk superstar’s homosexuality. You find out about your own promotion at work from your favorite gourmet coffee vendor. And then there’s the latest “medium” used in gossiping: text messaging. My sister had to confiscate her daughter’s cell phone because she was texting (or should we say, “gossiping”) with her girlfriends constantly -– at church, in school, on the bus, at the dinner table. Though free gossip is most Filipino’s bowl of rice, gossip carrying a per minute charge is not.

Aside from sometimes being an expensive habit, gossiping can kill too, literary and figuratively. I knew of a man in our town who turned into a hurimentado, a madman, and went on a killing spree with a sharp bolo after he heard rumors that his wife was cheating on him. He snapped and hacked to death his wife and his kumpadre, best friend, the rumored lover. Many relationships have been broken; many good reputations have been damaged because of tsismis. And yet, can one really imagine a world without gossip? In a perfect world, there would be no gossip, no scandals, no rumors, no hearsay. There would simply be no reason for them to exist. But in a world of average, imperfect folks, we will always need to discuss juicy details about our co-workers, our friends, our neighbors, our government officials, our favorite actors. It makes us feel better to point out other’s flaws so that we can deflect attention from our own. But you know what? Others will do the same to us. Regardless of the impact on others, it sure beats boring chitchat about the weather and the new paint color of your kitchen wall.

So we’ve established that tsismis is here to stay. How do we indulge in this, uh, vice, without it being a killer of men, a breaker of relationships, a “bad for you” thing, as my former advertising teacher had scribbled on my project a long time ago? In my book, one of the characters asked, “Is there gossip etiquette?” “Don’t be mean”, another character answered. I think that about sums it all: don’t be mean, don’t be malicious. Even in the middle of an intense gossip session, one should never be nasty enough to spread fictitious rumors about others. And when relating a truthful story about another, make sure it’s something that’s not going to hurt the subject of gossip. Relating something derogatory about others, even when true, should not be anyone’s bowl of rice.

I have given up smoking a long time ago but I must admit, I still gossip. I use it mainly as a conversation starter,
an icebreaker, not a breaker of men’s hearts and souls.

E-mail me Not My Bowl of Rice (or ‘my bowl of rice’) topics that you want featured in this column. We’ll try to accommodate everyone. After all, this column is meant to be everyone’s bowl of rice.

ER Escober is the author of award-winning novel/cookbook Not My Bowl Of Rice. Copies are available at