This is 45: Author Tobias Carroll Responds to The Oldster Magazine Questionnaire

"There are points now where I realize that I am the same age my father was when I was in middle school, and it freaks me out."

From the time I was 10, I’ve been obsessed with what it means to grow older. I’m curious about what it means to others, of all ages, and so I invite them to take “The Oldster Magazine Questionnaire.”
Here, author and Volume 1 Brooklyn managing editor Tobias Carroll responds. - Sari Botton

How old are you? 

I recently turned 45. I was born on Halloween in the town now known as Sleepy Hollow, New York—it was North Tarrytown at the time—which might explain some things.

Is there another age you associate with yourself in your mind? If so, what is it? And why, do you think?  

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. This is the first year where I’ve actually thought I was older than I actually was—which is to say, I caught myself thinking of myself as 45 for most of 2021.

That said, I don’t really know. I don’t have a lot of guidelines in my own life for single men in their 40s; there are points now where I realize that I am the same age my father was when I was in middle school, and it freaks me out. Sometimes I don’t feel much older than I did in my mid-twenties; sometimes I feel decrepit. It’s weird.

This is the first year where I’ve actually thought I was older than I actually was—which is to say, I caught myself thinking of myself as 45 for most of 2021.

Do you feel old for your age? Young for your age? Just right? Are you in step with your peers?

A lot depends on where I am. I’ve been living in the same apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn for 22 years now, and that creates a good sense of continuity, both for good and ill. In some cases, I feel young for my age and in others, I feel old. When I’m out with friends who are married or have kids, for instance, I feel acutely aware of my lack of milestones on either of those fronts. (Even if I’m fairly agnostic on the subject of having kids.) There are also times when I’ll be out with friends where I’ll realize I’m the oldest one there—which can definitely make me feel a little twitchy. 

The pandemic has had something of an effect on this, in that I used to go see live music a lot, but haven’t been to see anything since the pandemic began. And there were definitely times when I felt like the oldest person at a given show—to the point where I’m pretty sure the staff of one now-shuttered DIY venue suspected I was an undercover cop sent to investigate the place. Alternately, there was an odd satisfaction I could take when I’d go to a show and see someone else my age (or even older) there. 

The other way the pandemic has affected things has resulted in me not being out as much, period, which has slowed my feelings of self-consciousness about both my age and my appearance.

What do you like about being your age?

That I made it this far? Which is less a comment about depression and more a reflection of being old enough to have grown up during the Cold War, and thus to have spent a not insignificant part of my childhood anticipating a war that would be the end of human life as we know it. 

Admittedly, the existential terrors are still there—they’re just in a different form. But I think if I’d told my 10-year-old self that, hey, nuclear bombs won’t obliterate the world in the late 1980s, Young Toby would be pretty thrilled. Stoked, even.

I’m pretty sure that, when I turned 40, some genetic switch in my body flipped and my eyebrows began running wild.

What is difficult about being your age?

I was reading an article at The Atlantic earlier today about living alone—and how American society really isn’t designed for adults who live alone. Being my age means reckoning more and more with getting older, and with both my own mortality and the mortality of loved ones. And that’s really hard.

To put it another way: I feel like there’s a certain degree to which one can reasonably stay on a certain path, but I’m also unsure when that ends. If I’m still in the same place that I am now—speaking figuratively, not literally—in ten years, I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Throw in the continuing question of how the pandemic will reshape society, and it’s enough to make me stare into the distance and make odd little keening sounds.

What is surprising about being your age, or different from what you expected, based on what you were told?

I always assumed that at some point I would revert to some sort of default state and end up living in the suburbs, not unlike where I grew up, would commute to an office every day in a car, would mow a lawn regularly. So that not being the case—of having a life closer (I think, anyway—I’m generalizing a bit here) to my family in Austria rather than my family in the United States—is something that still intrigues me. 

What has aging given you? Taken away from you?

It’s given me a sense of perspective and some knowledge of cycles—there are a lot of pop-cultural debates and scene disagreements where I can find echoes of the past, and having that experience to draw on can be useful sometimes.

But it’s also tricky, because I have a massive case of self-loathing and my subconscious likes nothing more than dredging up some embarrassing or humiliating moment from my past to rub in my face. And the older I get, the more of them end up being filed away to come back up when I least expect them.

How has getting older affected your sense of yourself, or your identity?

Increased self-confidence coupled with increased levels of self-doubt. Time is a funny thing.

There were definitely times when I felt like the oldest person at a given [live music] show—to the point where I’m pretty sure the staff of one now-shuttered DIY venue suspected I was an undercover cop sent to investigate the place.

What are some age-related milestones you are looking forward to? Or ones you “missed,” and might try to reach later, off-schedule, according to our culture and its expectations? 

In an ideal world, I’d like to be in some sort of relationship/partnership—though, the older I get, the more I’m aware of my own flaws that make this unlikely to happen. I’d like to own a place to live someday. Beyond that, I’m not really sure.

What has been your favorite age so far, and why? Would you go back to this age if you could?

I’d go with 35. I was in far better shape than I am now, was writing regularly, and had a brief moment of work-life balance before that went awry and resulted in me freelancing full-time. 40 was also good—I had my first two books come out right at the tail end being 39—but the horror show of the 2016 election and the early days of the Trump administration were not long after that. 

As for whether I’d go back, I’m not sure. There are a lot of things that I enjoyed when I was those ages, but there were also a whole lot of shitty things—and I’d rather not live through some of those experiences a second time. But if I could, by some method, become circa-2011 me in 2021, I’d be fine with that.

Is there someone who is older than you, who makes growing older inspiring to you? Who is your aging idol and why?

I did at one point; I don’t any more. Though I do think I’m looking for an aging idol, or idols. 

What aging-related adjustments have you recently made, style-wise, beauty-wise, health-wise?

I’m pretty sure that, when I turned 40, some genetic switch in my body flipped and my eyebrows began running wild. So I trim them. A lot. Finally used my beard trimmer on them the other night, and that did a better job on them than the dedicated product I have that’s nominally designed for trimming eyebrows.

What’s an aging-related adjustment you refuse to make, and why?

Not much comes to mind. I guess I could say “I don’t dye the grey in my beard or hair,” but I’ve never felt compelled to do that. 

What’s your philosophy on celebrating birthdays as an adult? How do you celebrate yours?

I am a big fan of it, and enjoy nothing more than getting together with people at a bar to celebrate. I didn’t have anything planned for this year—though I’m feeling pretty good about my own personal risk and I’m a fan of New York City’s “you must be vaccinated to enter a bar” policy, and it had me in a “let’s get this over with” feeling towards this birthday more than anything else.


Tobias Carroll is the author of the short story collection Transitory (Civil Coping Mechanisms) and the novel Reel (Rare Bird). He is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn, and writes Words Without Borders’ Watchlist column. His writing has been published by Tin House, Rolling Stone, Hazlitt, The Scofield, Bookforum, and more. He has taught writing courses for LitReactor and Catapult.

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