Farmyard consulting

Background moos and cackles seep down the phone line into city life.

As writer and editor for a small nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., I am often on the phone. The organization's executive director and staff have all grown accustomed to the background noises of my home office, a nook in the kitchen by an antique chiming clock and directly above Charlie's basement workshop.

Consultations on proposals and progress reports are often accompanied by a power saw or wood lathe, or the simple but persistent ring of a hammer or staple gun.

My colleagues take it in stride, as they do the participation of a particularly devoted dog who attends all calls as if his solid, panting presence can turn the tide of attention his way. "Ah, the heavy breather," Liz comments as we discuss an executive summary.

The passing of a fire truck from the rural station around the corner carries to the nonprofit's capital office loud and clear. I can also hear D.C. sirens, but the high, plaintive, wail of canine response comes only from my end of the line.

"Tea time?" Lisa asks. I'd put the kettle on just before the phone rang then forgotten it – until the whistle pierces the connection.

A tractor passes and I explain that Charlie is cutting the near west hayfield (at least the workshop is quiet). During the years we milked a herd of cows and kept a flock of chickens, the barnyard blanketed my conversations with richly layered offerings of their own. I would try to stay professional and focused but it was hard when a bovine, yards from my desk, raised her head to summon a distant calf. (I ended up naming a heifer after each member of the nonprofit staff – the herd after all had become a small but vocal part of their lives, too.)

Woe to effective communications if something started the hens cackling in ever-rising crescendos of group approval or protest, or the milk truck arrived with big gears grinding.

Occasionally, I am asked to listen in on a conference call involving participants from around the country and world, a chance to brief myself on some technical issue and to help with summary notes. It is one thing to explain to the friends and colleagues I work with daily that newly hatched cicadas account for that dim roar in the background or that Charlie is chatting on the front porch with friends who dropped by unannounced (you have to have heard his laugh to appreciate how far it can carry). But I really do have to be more professional than that on more formal, carefully orchestrated calls across multiple time zones.

I can't always control the cacophony of house and home. I can, thank goodness, hit mute on the phone.

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