A Boy Named Zooey

I don’t know my own dog’s name…

That’s not completely true. I know how to spell it. I just don’t know how to pronounce it. He looks up when I say it, the way I think it’s supposed to be. I just don’t know if it’s right.

My dog’s name is Zooey. Zo’ is a six year old male Great Dane. My wife and I have shared a house with Zooey since he was six weeks old, along with his adopted sister Molly (another Great Dane) and two cats, Grace and Crash. So, no, the name didn’t come with him when he moved in with us, the result of a previous dog-human relationship. No, I gave him that name. I’m just not sure about the pronunciation.

The way I say it is:  Zoe-ee, just like the girl’s name. But I don’t know for sure. Maybe it’s Zoo-ee.

So we call him Zo’ most of the time, or Zo-bug. I have no idea where Zo-bug came from, so I’ll blame that on my wife. But yeah, most of the time he’s just Zo’. But sometimes I’ll call him Zooey, and sometimes I’ll call him Zooey in public, and every time that I do, of course everyone hears “Zoe,” and of course everyone thinks Zo’ is a girl. Which he’s cool with – no hang ups or insecurities on our boy, none whatsoever, as long as you scratch his head or butt or anywhere in between when you talk to him. So it doesn’t bother Zo’, but I feel weird about the whole thing. I mean, not knowing how to pronounce your own dog’s name? When you picked it yourself? That’s just lame.

So here’s how we got into this predicament. He’s named for the titular character in J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, a novella that was originally a couple of short stories published in the New Yorker back in ’55 and ‘57.  I wasn’t a particularly weird kid, even if you acknowledge that all kids are weird and even if for the sake of argument you say I was weirder than most. Weird, but not excruciatingly so. But while every teenage boy at some point goes through his “Catcher in the Rye” phase (which comes, what, two years after girls go through their horse phase?), I have to admit to being a bit fanatical about Salinger. Lots of kids read CITR over and over. And some kids dig through the shelves and found Franny and Zooey or Nine Stories. But then there is Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters. That’s the one that nearly always brings the streak to an end, where everyone loses interest. I think what happens is, once J.D. stops writing about kids, then kids stop reading.

But our library was missing their copy of “Raise High,” so I missed the memo that said to move on. And thanks to Maryland’s well-funded public education system, our libraries did have back copies of old New Yorker magazines, sometimes originals but sometimes microfiche versions, where I could immerse myself in the tales and tribulations of the Glass family, the eight precocious siblings who were the foundation of Salinger’s work.

And right then and there, fourteen year old me decides that when I grow up, I’m going to have two dogs named Franny and Zooey.

Even though I didn’t know how to pronounce “Zooey.”

But I didn’t realize then that I didn’t know how to pronounce it. Because during my fan-styled research into J.D., I picked up somewhere along the way that the singer David Bowie also named  a relative after this particular character, that being his son Zooey. But after a few years he sort of realized what he had done to the kid, so the family started calling him Joey. So I’m thinking, without really thinking, Zooey must rhyme with Joey, right? And Zowie probably rhymes with Bowie, although now that you mention it, am I positive that Bowie is pronounced “Bowie”? Is the Bow part like “bow and arrow”, or like “bow before the king”? Bowie State College was right down the street, but I’d heard folks say that both ways, and there’s Jim Bowie and his bowie knife, but again, who’s sure they’re pronouncing that right? So for my first 30 years on this planet and my first two years of having a canine roommate, I didn’t realize that there was a problem.

But it seemed that every time we took Zo’ in to the vet for a checkup, a variation on the same theme happened. Sometimes they saw the name and said, “So how’s she doing?” Or sometimes they saw the name and squinted and said, “So how’s Zoe, Zoo, Zow… how’s he’s doing?” And sometimes they said, “Looks like the clerk put too many O’s in her name on the chart… I’ll fix that for you.”  Now, it certainly didn’t bother Zooey, and it didn’t really bother me, other than leaving me feeling a bit like a nitwit for forcing this awkward name on our boy. But I didn’t worry about it and didn’t put any effort into fixing it until…

Then I read Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ The Hidden Life of Dogs. And lo and behold, one of her dogs is a male named Zooey. She’s obviously a literary sort, and she’ll know the deal, I’m thinking, so I fire off a letter to her publisher, trying to get in touch with her. But three attempts later, I have yet to hear back, so that was a dead end.

And then I found a column in the online newsletter of a fairly prominent bookstore located out in the Pacific northwest. The bookstore has a weekly feature about the lives of the store cats and dogs, and sure enough, one of the characters is a male canine named Zooey. So I fire off an email to the newsletter editor who puts me in touch with Zooey’s dad, and I ask him how he pronounces his dog’s name, and he tells me it’s Zoo-ee, not Zoe-ee. So I tell him the story of how I came to naming our dog Zoe-ee, with the Bowie/Zooey/Joey tale and everything, and Pacific Northwest Zooey’s dad emails back, “Yeah, whatever,” and I never hear from him again. He was all chatty until I pointed out that there might be another way to pronounce it, and now I’ve transferred my uncertainty to another who was doing just fine until his path crossed mine.

So that’s where I’ve been for the past couple of years. I gave up on trying to solve the matter and just resigned myself to having a dog with a strange name, like Johnny Cash’s “Boy Named Sue.” I did get about five seconds of satisfaction when I caught an episode of “Sex and the City” where an eccentric literary couple had named their two girls Franny and Zoey, but when the credits rolled I saw that HBO had changed the name from Zooey to Zoey so I can’t really use that as airtight evidence.

So I decided to conduct one last test. I called Zooey.

“Zooey! Come here, boy! Come here, Zo-bug!”

Zooey came running, all excited because the tone of my voice says walk or treat or scratch or something real good.

“Zooey! Watcha think? Do you mind having a silly name?”

Now Zo’s drooling a bit, and he cranes his neck so I can scratch it on just the right spot.

“Do you mind that your dad’s a nitwit?”

More drooling, panting, and leaning in to me to the point that I have to brace against his 160 pound fuselage.

“Just wanted to make sure that you’re cool with occasionally being mistaken for a girl. Any issues there, just let me know, okay?”

At with that final question, I get a big sigh, the kind of sigh that tells me that I’m scratching exactly the right spot and all’s well with the world.

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