Sandra Steingraber. Photo by Dede Hatch.

Sandra Steingraber has bachelor and doctorate degrees in biology and a master's in creative writing. "I had long been a biologist by day and poet by night," she said in a phone interview earlier this month. "I kind of kept my writing world and my science world separate."

And that was her intention when she set out to write the book that would become Living Downstream. "It was going to represent my best attempt as a biologist to summarize the links between cancer and the environment," she said.

But the poet in her ended up transforming the project into something unusual: a deeply personal story intertwined with a scientific one, as Steingraber discusses her own cancer in the context of the troubling relationship between chemical pollution and the disease. The hook of the book, she said, is "the life behind one of the data points in the cancer registry, namely my own."

Steingraber will be speaking at St. Ambrose University on October 22 as part of the school's Sustainability Project, which includes events throughout the academic year. Her lecture, she said, will apply the "conceptual theme" of Living Downstream (originally published in 1997, with a second edition and film adaptation released in 2010) to fracking - induced hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas and petroleum.

Kelly Daniels. Photo by Joshua Ford (JoshuaFord.com).

In ninth grade, Kelly Daniels was called to the principal's office, where his father was waiting. Dad took Kelly and his younger brother Ole for a drive, and after a while, he said, "I figured you should hear it from me first."

He said he woke up in jail. And: "To be honest, it was kind of a relief when the guard finally told me I killed Barclay." And then: "You can cry if you want."

But Daniels didn't cry. What he felt instead was "something that still kind of amazes me," he said in an interview earlier this month. "It was a strange reaction. It just seemed like all of a sudden my life brushed against the news. 'This is a big deal.'"

He felt something similar when he emerged from a week-long fever that nearly killed him in Honduras: "There was this same sense ... of my life being like a book."

And now it is - and a good one, too. Daniels, an associate professor of English at Augustana College, earlier this year published his memoir Cloudbreak, California. (He'll celebrate its release with a party from 6 to 10 p.m. on Friday, September 27, at the Bucktown Center for the Arts, and he'll also read from it as part of the River Readings at Augustana series on January 16.)

"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth."

These are the first words of the Bible, and they were also one of 50 "great beginnings" that we offered our readers as opening lines for our 2013 short-fiction contest. (See the full list at RCReader.com/y/fiction.) We had lots of submission rules, but the other main criterion was a 250-word limit beyond the chosen prompt.

We received 134 entries, and we're printing prize-winners and other favorites here.

Enjoy!

Developer Tim Baldwin in the Democrat building. The skylight, he said, will be integrated into the design of one apartment.

It would be natural to look at the volume of housing being developed in downtown Davenport and infer some coordinated process or a major new incentive program. Roughly 300 market-rate apartments are either recently finished or in the development process.

There's undoubtedly a trend here. The Downtown Davenport Partnership - part of the Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce - noted in its strategic plan from earlier this year that "nearly 100,000 square feet of office space is currently planned for conversion to residential units."

That includes 11 different projects from seven different developers.

And while the Downtown Davenport Partnership has been a key player, its director - Kyle Carter - said his organization's role has been to "help guide that process. Not own it, guide it. ...

"We always give advice when these developers are shopping," he said. "But the vast majority of those plans are developer-driven. If anything, I'm the tour guide. I'm the guy that is showing the buffet of options down here. So I will certainly push for projects that I think are more catalytic, or locations that will have bigger benefits for the whole down here."

In other words, local government, a downtown organization, or a plan with the scale or taxpayer cost of River Renaissance isn't behind this housing boom. It's largely happening on its own.

By most standards, Jason Kakert's Iowa Hemp for Victory page on Facebook is a modest grassroots political effort. He started the page in 2011, and this week it had only 58 "likes."

"This is just getting started out," the 31-year-old graphic artist said last week in his studio at the Bucktown Center for the Arts. "Right now this is kind of a one-man show."

But Kakert (a former River Cities' Reader intern) is an eloquent advocate for industrial hemp, and he's part of a movement that's gaining significant traction. Last month, the U.S. House - by a vote of 225 to 200 - passed an amendment to the farm bill that would allow "institutions of higher education to grow or cultivate industrial hemp for the purpose of agricultural or academic research," according to the amendment's summary. "The amendment only applies to [the nine] states that already permit industrial hemp growth and cultivation under state law."

The amendment is now attached to the House-passed farm bill, but its fate is uncertain at best; the larger politics of the farm bill dwarf this particular issue.

Yet the amendment's passage represented a major surprise victory for hemp advocates. As Tom Murphy, the national outreach coordinator and a board member of the not-for-profit organization Vote Hemp, said in an interview last week: "We were expecting a 50 to 375 defeat."

Admittedly, some of our previous short-fiction contests have been a bit cruel.

So we're making it easy for our 2013 contest, which runs through August 20. (Our favorite entries will be published in the September 5 issue of the River Cities' Reader.)

All you need to do is start with one of the beginnings below and finish your story in an additional 250 words. And we've been extremely generous, giving you 50 options!

I should probably wait to tell you that the previously mentioned beginnings come from the Bible, Moby-Dick, Infinite Jest, A Tale of Two Cities, The Color Purple, Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone ... . And one - offered here in its entirety - might be the shortest story ever written.

Without whistleblowers - employees within government and big business, at all levels, who risk their livelihoods and sometimes lives - the American public (and world) would have no knowledge about many of the most outrageous, dangerous, and covert activities perpetrated upon society. This includes everything from fabricating false pretenses for going to war to war crimes (including torture) against prisoners and innocent civilians to lethal environmental abuses to fraudulent financial schemes that have devastated millions of families' life savings. In the past, the exposure of these egregious acts has often (but not always) brought reform, exposed criminality resulting in prosecutions, and perhaps most importantly saved countless lives. Sadly, in today's political environment, it is the whistleblowers who are being penalized for telling Americans the truth.

But for the threat of whistleblowers, ill-intended politicians and bureaucrats and their crony-capitalist private-sector brethren would operate in an oversight vacuum - free to abuse their power and engage in criminal activity at will. The contributions that whistleblowers make to an open and free society cannot be overstated.

How many more thousands of lives would have been lost if it were not for Daniel Ellsberg's infamous Pentagon Papers that exposed the Department of Defense's lies and manipulation that propped up the Vietnam War (MostDangerousMan.org)? How much more abuse would citizens suffer at the hands of corrupt police departments if it were not for Frank Serpico testifying about the rampant corruption inside the New York police department? These are, or should be, just two of the household names in the whistleblower pantheon.

The three categories for the River Cities' Reader's 2013 photography contest are "illumination," "future," and "brazen." The deadline for entries is May 21, and the rules are below. We plan to publish the winners in our May 30 issue.

The River Cities' Reader's dining survey was open from October 2012 through February 2013. Respondents needed to provide reasonable answers in at least 15 categories for their votes to be counted.

Vote in the current survey at RCReader.com/y/survey through August 31! Results will be published in the fall/winter Dining Guide.

Restaurant
1) Antonella's Ristorante & Pizzeria
2) The Faithful Pilot Cafe & Spirits
3) The Crane & Pelican Cafe

New restaurant (opened in 2012)
1) Crust - Stone Oven Pizza
2) Pepperjack's Restaurant & Lounge
3) Doc's Inn Bar & Grill
3) Goombazz Big City Eatzz

This past weekend, we brought our daughter to Davenport's Putnam Museum and did the full tour. We saw Flight of the Butterflies 3D on the Giant Screen, walked through the new Bodies Revealed show, and saw all the cultural-, regional-, and natural-history displays that visitors have known for decades, from the mummies to the Asian artifacts to Bix's cornet.

But what kept Emily's attention was the Spark Learning Lab, a modest career-themed room with the goal of preventing high-school drop-outs.

Our daughter is five and in no danger yet of dropping out of any school - or pursuing any career beyond princess-ing. And the Spark Learning Lab is geared toward fifth- and sixth-graders. But she loved the lab's drawing program with the dual touch screens (one on the computer and one where the picture was being projected), the construction-plank set (which she's playing with on this issue's cover), and the feature that allows visitors to build tube structures and - with the help of a blower - either launch table-tennis balls or keep them aloft.

One station in the room lets visitors connect batteries to simple electrical devices, and another shows how structures they build with Lincoln Logs or those aforementioned planks might fare in an earthquake. The "concentration station" fosters communications skills, as one person describes a block structure and a partner tries to build its twin using verbal instructions alone.

If you want to see where the Putnam is headed, you can look at the conceptual drawings - posted in several locations - of its planned STEM learning center. The $1.5-million project is currently in the fundraising phase, and the museum expects to open it in June 2014. Putnam President and CEO Kim Findlay said adding the STEM center to the Putnam now is "the right time and the right thing for the community and the museum."

But you'll get a hands-on sense of the Putnam's direction in the Spark Learning Lab. Larger-scale hints are available in the interactive components of the current Destination: Space exhibit, with its compressed-air tennis-ball launcher, and a bicycle wheel and rotating platform demonstrating angular momentum.

Implicitly and explicitly, all of these draw a line from playful exploration to science to careers, and that's what the STEM center will do on a much grander level. It's an attempt to transform the nearly-century-and-a-half-old Putnam from "nice to necessary," to use a phrase that's common in the museum field these days.

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