I WAS ATOP my ladder with pliers in one hand and a tangle of Christmas lights in the other when I felt the first drop of rain. Moments later I was buffeted by an even more ominous force of nature.
"Whatcha doing?" asked Melvin, my sports-minded neighbor.
"I thought I'd take down the lights while the weather was nice," I said with what I hoped was understated sarcasm.
"But it's raining," he said.
"Mmmmm," I replied.
"I thought you'd be inside watching football," he said. "But I guess tomorrow's the big day for that."
He was referring to New Year's Day. As usual, Melvin was a decade or so behind the curve, as evidenced by the Todd Fuller Warriors jersey he wore over a Montreal Expos T-shirt.
"I can tell you one thing," I said, making my way down the ladder. "I'll be in front of the TV at 10 o'clock tomorrow morning."
"I hear you," he said. "You have to give props to Bobby Bowden in his final game."
"I'm not talking about the Gator Bowl," I said.
"Got it," he said, attempting to wink but succeeding only in making it appear as if a burning ember had drifted into his eye. "The wife's making you watch the Capital One Bowl."
It's true that my wife graduated from Penn State. My dad, too. But I had plans that didn't involve watching Joe Paterno coach against Les Miles.
"Actually, I'll be watching the Bruins and Flyers," I said.
Melvin's eyebrows crashed together. "UCLA is playing Dayton?" he asked.
"No, Boston is playing Philadelphia," I said.
Melvin's mouth gaped open.
"Hockey?" I said. "The NHL? The Winter Classic outdoor game from Fenway Park?"
Melvin shook his head vigorously, as if trying to clear cobwebs.
"Hockey?" he asked. "On the holiest day of the college football season?"
I understood his consternation. Neither of us likes change. I grudgingly accept it, most of the time. He tends to ignore it all the time.
In fact, there was a time when New Year's Day was synonymous with college football, from the time you woke up until the time that you laced up your sneakers for your "this is the year I lose 35 pounds" run around the block. The staples were the Cotton Bowl, Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl and Orange Bowl.
It was a fittingly intense conclusion to the season, the last college football you'd see for nine months. You felt compelled to gorge yourself on the spectacle.
"I hate to tell you," I told Melvin, "but things have changed."
"But," he stammered, "the Cotton Bowl!"
"That's on January 2nd this year," I said.
"That BCS thingy?"
"The 7th," I said.
"How did this happen?" he asked.
"It started with the BCS and a so-called national championship game," I explained. "That game was played after the New Year's Day schedule. Then some genius got the idea that 34 bowl games would be better than 18, and that 6-6 teams like Florida State were worthy of New Year's Day, and that the games should be sprinkled more or less randomly over late December and early January."
"So you watch hockey instead?"
"As opposed to Auburn and Northwestern in the Outback Bowl? You bet."
"But it's not tradition," he said.
"It is now."