You say your car was just recalled and your flight was canceled? Your congressman's in jail and your mortgage is the size of Mount Rushmore? And you're getting the queasy suspicion that America is going the way of the dodo?
Well, before you climb out on the window ledge, tune in to Channel 9 tonight at 10 for "The Cowboy, the Craftsman and the Ballerina," a rousing CBS news special conceived in nostalgia and dedicated to the proposition that "the best part of our civilization has worked up through the centuries" in "the tradition of the master craftsman and the apprentice."
The hour is divided into three parts -- narrated in earnest sonority by "60 Minutes" regular Morley Safer -- exploring the expert worlds of Wyoming cowboy Bob Douglas, New Hampshire boat builder Bud McIntosh, dance doyenne Natalia Makarova and their respective prote'ge's.
The Wyoming segment alone could profitably fill an hour, and is a salutary spectacle for drip-dry urbanites whose principal experience of ranching is at the Safeway meat counter. Douglas' speech is simple and as fresh as well water, and as the camera tracks a range of rituals -- herding and feeding, "wrasslin', de-hornin' and brandin' " -- Safer sensibly shuts up and lets him do the talking. The program's format is to intercut the philosophy of the master with the travails of the rookies, and as Douglas expounds on high pride and low wages ("anything pays better . . . it's like the history of a rancher -- chicken today and feathers tomorrow, you might say"), we watch his heritage at work in the practiced dexterity and big, honest faces of his apprentices.
T.J. Symonds, a lean and taciturn 18-year-old, becomes a silent star in a long horse-breaking sequence. The eloquently spare voice-over by Douglas plays perfectly against the tight shots of Symonds touching the horse with a gentle insistence that is a mute sermon on reverence for animals. And when the boy does speak, with a hard-scrabble dignity and unrelenting gaze, it is obvious that, beyond his skills, he has learned more than most of us ever will about the cruelty of fate and the price of self-respect: "I'd like to spend most of my life, until I'm 35 or 40, cowboying . . . and then I'd like to be a saddle maker . . . And when I get older, if I'm in a wheelchair, at least I'll be able to build a saddle. Won't just have to sit and look at pictures all my life."
The subsequent sections are not as moving, but just as deftly edited and invitingly educational. Bud McIntosh, who at 73 has built 80 boats, comments with wry Yankee candor ("a perfect barge is beautiful or a coasting schooner, clumsy-looking thing, if it was exactly right to do what it was supposed to do"), while assistant Jeff Fogman barely contains the anger in remembering how "I'd just finished a boat that took 6,700 hours to build and he told me that I knew just enough to identify the tools by name and maybe sweep the floor in his shop. And he was right."
In the ballet section, the iron-willed fluidity of Makarova is mirrored in the movements of her star pupil, Nancy Raffa, a 16-year-old prodigy who looks like a pre-Raphaelite Barbra Streisand.
The program has the smart pace and crisply edited feel of "60 Minutes," as well as that show's over-reliance on head shots and close-ups which deny the viewer a sense of people in their larger surroundings. But it's a joy to watch, and shows that CBS has maintained a few master traditions of its own.