As her 50th birthday approached in 2000, Etta Worthington, now a Forest Parker, decided she was going to do things differently. Call it millennial anxiety, or maybe a midlife re-evaluation, but Worthington decided to plan out her Jubilee year to be full of new experiences.
Today a filmmaker and teacher at Columbia College, Worthington was aspiring to embark on these careers when she came up with the idea of trying 50 new things in her 50th year, and making a movie about it.
Now, 12 years later, the film, 50 at 50 is premiering at the Illinois International Film Festival on Saturday, Dec. 1.
“This was not a bucket list,” Worthington emphasized. “It wasn’t 50 things to do before I died. This was simply 50 things I had never tried before.” She described changing her life in her 50s as “like turning a barge around.”
Her 40th year had been “very tough,” she said. Two close friends had died of cancer. She lost her job, filed for bankruptcy. She felt that her life was beyond her own control. Worthington struggled through her 40s, raising a daughter as a single mother and rising at 5:30 a.m. to work on creative writing.
As she neared age 50, she said she was looking at her life and wondering how it would change.
The rude awakening is that she seemed to have disappeared.
“I felt invisible,” she said, recalling how a restaurant maître d looked “right through me” and seated two tall men in suits before her. “It was like they couldn’t see me. I was a gray-haired woman and I’m short, and suddenly a big man comes in and then they notice,” she remembered.
Worthington worked as a newspaper editor and in the textbook industry. She acquired an MBA along the way, and decided that using her business school training, she would plan the second half of her life like a business. But how to get out of the rut?
Filmmaking had been a passion of hers in her 20s, a passion she gave up when family and other circumstances got in the way.
By the time she turned 50, “I forgot what my dream was for 20-something years. This movie is about waking up old dreams.”
She made a list of 50 things she had never tried, such as playing poker (she had a strict Baptist upbringing) rollerblading, selling peanuts at Wrigley Field, jet skiing, taking a swordplay class, getting tatooed and watching the mating dance of sandhill cranes.
“If you do 50 new things, it’s gotta change you somehow,” she said in the film’s trailer. “I’m looking at my 50th year to change me.”
With 52 weeks in a year, Worthington decided to do “something new every week.” But then she had to scrounge up a crew to work the camera and sound. “It was a race against time every week. I had a camera and sound equipment, but I had to find someone to shoot it.”
Worthington said most documentaries are expected to have a “message,” but hers is more an upbeat look at experiences — and how they can change a person.
“I see myself as every woman. I didn’t think of this as about me. I’m just an average person from my generation,” Worthington said. “The whole idea of going out there, doing different things and pushing yourself like you haven’t done before can be scary and fun.”
She said salsa dancing was the activity that made her look the silliest in the film. “I have a Baptist leg,” she explains.
The 50th and final activity in the film was having her hair shaved short. “It gets more attention,” she said. “Here I am. I don’t blend into the woodwork. I’m this age — in your face and full of life.”
Making the film was definitely a way to “face her fears,” and push herself out of her comfort zone. “Every time I feel like I’m getting too comfortable now, I give myself a noodge,” she said. As the daughter of a parent with Alzheimer’s disease, she thinks the experience has helped keep her memory sharp.
She hopes the film will inspire other people to try new things that make them a little uncomfortable. She’d like to see it screened often and may write a self-help book to go with it.
“Anybody in midlife probably has some commitments that keep them from making quick changes, but don’t think it’s impossible. When I made this movie, I still had a daughter somewhat dependent on me and part-time jobs. It’s not easy to change, but it’s not impossible and it didn’t happen overnight.”
Worthington said part of her motivation was to show her daughter, Ashley Simone, how to “look at your fear and face it and be comfortable with change.”
Simone, whom her mother calls “courageous,” has her own film career going. Worthington and Simone partnered to produce the 1940s-themed “Foodgasm” retro web cooking show, which is ongoing.
Worthington said it has taken 12 years for her film to be completed. In that time, she has seen how her dreams played out over the past decade.
“Here I am teaching and making film projects. That’s what I wanted my life to be, and it took awhile and it’s there. That’s good,” Worthington said.