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My toothpick-thin, 12-years-younger-than-me brother-in-law alarmed me the other day with, "Look, you've got furniture disease. Your chest's fallen into your drawers." OK, brother, that's the last time you get the extra piece of cake at my birthday party.

Admittedly, I have been buying larger and larger-waisted pants. Some shorts in my chest of drawers are labeled 28-30. They were never really comfortable. For a long time, 32-34 worked, but on my last trip to the Gap, after wearing 38-inch waist khakis with the top button open, I hit a milestone. I gave in and bought some blue jeans at 40 inches.

My dad and his two brothers developed bellies in later years. I thought they let themselves go. Now, I suspect it's genetic. I should be thankful to my brother-in-law for calling my attention to this mistake of nature.

It is a mistake. It is a lie. I don't deserve this anterior appendage, this built-in automatic flotation device. I exercise and eat carefully. Something else must be going on. Yet some bellies don't lie. Like my other brother-in-law, who eats twice as much as the first one and has the belly to prove it. Even in his case, I believe other forces of destiny are working.

Oh, I used to be so proud. I'd see these older gents with belts up over the top of their pots so that they appeared to have no chest at all. Others fastened their belts beneath their bulging guts. There is a disadvantage to the second approach. When you stoop, the back of your pants descends, exposing more than intended.

Hipbones were designed to hang the top of your pants on to. It worked that way for me, up to a point. Now when I tighten my belt to suspend my pants, it bites into soft compressible belly rather than hipbone. It's uncomfortable and I believe has an adverse effect on my already precarious digestion.

I can "pinch an inch." So maybe I eat a little more strudel than I should, but my legs are skinny and so's my butt. It is more of a design flaw. Older men store their fat awkwardly. If mine were evenly distributed all over me, I could look like GI Joe, I think.

Everyone begins to stoop with age, as gravity's inexorable force asserts itself, and with the stoop comes the belly. Try it. Stand up straight for a minute and you'll have less belly. Be careful though. At one point, I stood straight, tightened my sagging abs and my pants fell down.

Gas is a part of the problem. It can blow you up like a dirigible, increasing the waistline by inches. My gastroenterologist has me "restoring the normal flora" by eating "live yogurt."

"Abs of steel" intrude on my thoughts. Aren't those ads for men's briefs and for home gymnasium devices dreadful? The models they use are the male answer to Barbie dolls. What harsh regime must they have endured to achieve such unnatural proportions? No wonder everyone feels inferior.

I'm still thinking about suspenders. They hold your pants at whatever height you designate and they do not constrict. They put you in a class with Wall Street tycoons without the trouble of acquiring an MBA. Just don't wear a belt with them. It makes you look uncertain.

The solution in "Gladiator" appeals to me. A pot-bellied emperor dons a breast plate of steel with the chest and abdominal muscles of Hercules embossed upon it. Get out of my way Calvin Klein. How do you like these abs?

LARRY BEAHAN lives in Amherst.
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