2: Catflexing

2: Catflexing

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Very Good, Very Bad Cat


Fun fact: A cat’s back is extremely flexible because it has up to fifty-three loosely fitting vertebrae. Humans only have thirty-four.

Years ago, I had the great fortune to work as a literary publicist for a small non-fiction publishing house in Berkeley, California. For reasons that were never quite explained to me, if a manuscript was odd, quirky, or in any way bizarre, the editors would immediately assign the project to me. Apparently, they felt my personality and talents were best suited for this kind of fare. Looking back, I have to admit, I did seem to have a penchant and sincere love for the stuff.

During my tenure I successfully promoted everything from cookbooks for bug-eaters to coffee-table books featuring cats that paint. In keeping with the twisted/quirky/oddball theme, I began working with one particular author, Stephanie Jackson, whose book focused on an untapped feline fitness frenzy she lovingly invented and appropriately coined as “Catflexing.”

Stephanie first penned this brilliant “exercise how-to” as an inside joke. She created a colorful calendar full of photos of her performing a variety of exercises with her two cats as if they were barbells. In all of the pictures the cats look as blissful as she does — perfectly Zenned out in this owner-cat bonding experience. Stephanie gave the calendars to her family and friends as a gift and inside joke. But it wasn’t long before the joke was on her because everyone she knew said it was too good, too hilarious and too “what-the-world-needs-now” to be kept hidden from the public one minute longer. So, reluctantly, at first, the author brought her idea to our publishing house and instantly we knew we had a hit on our hands. And voila — Catflexing was born!

Created with the body-conscious cat-lover in mind, Catflexing fused the athletic and feline fanatical worlds while simultaneously answering the burning age-old question, “How can I maintain my fitness regime without sacrificing quality time with my cat?”

On one particular sunny summer day in San Francisco, I was charged with the task of finding a suitable stunt cat to “stand in” for the author’s own beloved feline. We were doing a live satellite feed for Good Morning Australia (the Aussie version of Good Morning America) and unfortunately Stephanie’s own cat, with whom she had Catflexed for many years, could not travel to the set that day.

Luckily, at the last minute, a co-worker of mine came to the rescue by volunteering his own beloved kitty as “guest star” for the job. Frankly, I was relieved to cross that off my to-do list.

What my dear colleague failed to mention was that his “little puddy tat” was in fact a healthy twenty-nine-pound Maine Coon behemoth that blocked out the sun. (Also, being a rather strange-looking, overweight, angry, drooling, red-eyed sort of cat.) But beggars can’t be choosers. This wasn’t “America’s Next Top Feline Model.” So we would just have to make do.

Of course, Stephanie’s own cat at home was a seasoned Catflexing pro. And by way of drastic comparison, it floated into the ring at a lithe seven pounds — quite a departure from the wretched Chewbacca cat on set that day. (And lest I forget to mention it, it is important to note that at this point in time Stephanie, though incredibly fit, was about eight months pregnant, and utterly bursting at the seams.) The poor unsuspecting woman was about to appear on live television wearing a Spandex maternity leotard and go right into a routine of dead lifting and bench pressing with a ginormous Wookie Cat.

The stunt-double cat and Stephanie had never had the pleasure of meeting, let alone “Catflexing” together before. We were running way behind, the director was already counting us down and there was no time for me to warn Stephanie. Stephanie had not even caught a glance of this disturbing fur-squatch (who appeared to be suffering a touch of IBS or similar ailment.).

We barely got into the studio before “Action!” was called. Peeking out from behind the camera, I crossed my fingers and toes, held my breath and said a silent Hail Mary.

Being a literary publicist had its ups and downs, but I never expected those to include watching an extremely pregnant client try to heft a behemoth cat up and down on live television! I wondered if there was an Aussie word for “sheer panic.”

All I could do was watch in horror as the creature screeched, scratched, clawed, spat, drooled and generally pulled some truly ungrateful faces as Stephanie blithely performed her trademark sit-ups and squats, deep knee-bends and over-the-head kitty-cat crunches. It was clear that things were not going to end well, but Stephanie struggled on. The fitness instructor-turned-author-turned scratching post bravely and gracefully stretched her arms and bent down and lifted the irritated, wild-eyed animal behind her neck, onto her stomach and way, way up in the air… all with an almost Zen-like perma-grin plastered on her face.

It was not until months later, looking back at this moment, that I realized Stephanie’s smile was not so much “beauty queen poise” as it was “I am going to kill the moron who did this to me.” I didn’t even realize that I (and probably most of the crew) had stopped breathing until at last the tortured beast broke free from the workout and escaped in a billowing tornado of dust, dander and fur.

Silence fell on the studio as the kitty clouds settled. Stephanie, ever the stalwart professional, having realized we were still rolling, looked straight into the camera, smiled and managed to calmly say, “Well… it’s not for every cat.”

Cut to still-store of the book cover. Cue graphics, with store details, fade out. Cue music, fade to black, and we’re out!

The book, to no one’s great surprise, met with great success. I pitched Stephanie as a guest to various TV segment producers, landing her on some major network programs including The Rosie O’Donnell Show and several Animal Planet programs. My ultimate goal was achieved when I booked Stephanie on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. I thought it would be perfect for them (and an amazing promotional opportunity for Stephanie’s book — a total win-win). And not only did they agree to do the show, the producers (including Steve Colbert) flew out to San Francisco and did a hilarious in-depth feature segment with Stephanie, her book and her exercising felines.

We were inundated with calls from all over the world. I remember media people from England calling me and saying, with their sweet British accents, “Brilliant! You know, I rather think one could do this with quite small dogs, as well.”

By the way, I found out (after the fact, of course), that the Maine Coon cat we borrowed for the Australian satellite feed? Her name was Monster.

Brilliant indeed.

It all goes to show you what incredible, amazing, unpredictable and, yes, sometimes even quirky creatures cats can be. And I am so very glad they are.

~Erika Whitmore

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